|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000
Issue No. 501
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Elections Region International Economy Opinion Culture Special Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
A Diwan of contemporary life (356)
The Wafd Party headed by nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul, who led the 1919 revolution against British occupation, formed a new cabinet in 1924 after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. Despite its political strength and firm grip on the nation, the government was frequently rattled by opposition criticism and saw fit to take counteraction. Opposition newspapers became the target of a two-pronged drive by the Wafdist government -- hostile demonstrations by hordes of Wafdist students who often resorted to violence and court action against opposition writers. In legal proceedings and newspaper articles a major issue related to press freedom was debated -- the dividing line between legitimate criticism and slander. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story from Al-Ahram's coverage.
The red line
One of the most striking features of the Saad Zaghlul government, which held office between 28 January and 24 November 1924, is the unusual frequency and intensity of the clashes between it and the press. From what has been described as "the people's government," one would have expected the exact opposite; that the relations between it and the press would have been much more harmonious than ever before and that the press under that government would have enjoyed an unprecedented level of freedom.
Perhaps one of the leading reasons of this anomaly was the overwhelming victory of the Wafd Party in the parliamentary elections held at the beginning of that year. Winning 192 out of parliament's 214 seats, as opposed to nine for the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, four for the Nationalist Party, six for independents, with the three remaining seats allocated to the border constituencies, the results for the opposition were devastating.
Mohamed Hussein Heikal, editor-in-chief of Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece for the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, expressed the dismay felt by the opposition on the day the election results appeared:
"As soon as I sat down at my desk the telephone started to ring. What a night that was! Never had there been one more exciting and more cruel. I had been certain of the victory of certain candidates in view of the vigorous support they had in their constituencies. I did not doubt for a moment that they would succeed. But then the results began to reach me and my confidence began to plummet. The phone would ring and I would hear that one of the candidates who were so assured of victory met his defeat against a complete unknown amidst the cheers of all present. This repeated itself again and again."
Lord Allenby, the British high commissioner, was equally dismayed. After wiring off the election results to London he filed a report in which he expressed his fear that such a "gargantuan" party towering over parliament would be disastrous for political life in Egypt. Of course, the high commissioner's reaction reflected his anxiety that the heady victory of the Wafd would drive it towards an even more hard-line anti-British position.
But others were no less apprehensive of the implications the Wafd's overwhelming control over parliament held for opposition views. And, fears of a tyranny of the masses mounted with the pro-Zaghlul student demonstrations that swept the capital in the wake of his victory. One of the most disturbing moments came in response to the reservations voiced by some of the opposition deputies to Zaghlul's "speech from the throne," delivered during the inaugural ceremonies of the new parliament and in which the newly elected prime minister outlined his policies. The "Wafd's student army," as Allenby dubbed the demonstrators, poured into the streets surrounding the parliament building, creating what Al-Ahram described as a disorderly and raucous throng that "clamoured in support of the speech from the throne and national aspirations."
Certainly, the Wafd leadership was aware of the power they had in the streets. On the same occasion Zaghlul's private secretary reports, "On the afternoon of 22 March 1924 a large assembly of students gathered in Ezbekiya Gardens where speakers decried criticism against the speech from the throne. Then, they marched to the parliament building where they hailed the Prime Minister as he entered the parliament building. Later, when he emerged they cheered him again and a large contingent of them followed him to the House of the Nation (Zaghlul's home), shouting slogans in support of the speech from the throne."
It is true that Zaghlul cautioned his supporters against creating disturbances. But it is equally true that this reinforced the feeling among Wafd leaders that the masses would spontaneously take to the streets in its support. Moreover, with the vast majority of parliament and public opinion behind him, Zaghlul was quick to press home his advantages, moving with unexpected haste against the opposition parties.
The Liberal Constitutionalists, supporters of Zaghlul's formidable adversary, former Prime Minister Adli Yakan, were his prime target. Immediately after the elections, parliament agreed to overturn the election results that brought into parliament one of that party's senior leaders, Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha. Furthermore, not only was Mahmoud's parliamentary membership invalidated but his newspaper, Al-Siyasa, was barred from the new parliament's inaugural session. The decision provoked an outcry in the national press, and a delegation of journalists issued a strongly worded letter of protest against an action they described as "a blow against the public right of the press and an impediment to the performance of its national duty, regardless of the political orientation of individual newspapers." Addressing Zaghlul, the letter continued, "We would like to convey to Your Excellency our deepest regret at the manner in which our colleagues have been treated, and to express our hope that the Egyptian press will continue to obtain the constant support and defense of its rights that it has customarily received from you."
Mohamed Hussein Heikal
The opposition, thus, was clearly on the defensive, but it still had a powerful ally in the press. Indeed, the Liberal Constitutionalists and the National Party possessed widely disseminated newspapers capable of advocating their position before public opinion, and the newspapers were relentless in their campaigns against the Wafd-dominated parliament and the Zaghlul government.
Al-Siyasa, mouthpiece for the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, featured a lengthy list of literary and intellectual luminaries. Along with its editor-in-chief, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, there were Mahmoud Azmi, Tawfiq Diab, Taha Hussein, Mansour Fahmi and Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq, all of whom had a wide readership. Al-Siyasa also enjoyed substantial funding from the party, which counted among its members a large number of Egyptian notables.
The National Party's newspaper, Al-Akhbar, owned and operated by Amin El-Rafie, had been the mouthpiece for the Wafd during the 1919 Revolution. As such it, too, had a solid following as it had become a haven for breakaway Wafdists of the stature of Abdel-Rahman El-Rafie, the owner's brother.
Other less prominent newspapers took part in the confrontation with the Zaghlul government in 1924. The best known was Al-Kashkoul. Owned and operated by Suleiman Fawzi, this periodical was notoriously outspoken in its criticism, and could afford to be so in view of the generous financial and moral support it received from wealthy members of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party.
However, these newspapers' criticisms of the Zaghlul government would come at a price. The assault against them was mounted on two fronts, -- at the hands of the "Wafd's student army" and in the courts.
On 27 March, Al-Ahram reports that at 1.00pm the previous day, "a large demonstration marched down Qasr El-Nil Street until it reached the Al-Akhbar building, where the protesters shouted slogans against the newspaper and its editor-in-chief. When he saw the demonstrators approaching, the doorman took fright and bolted the gate. Not confining themselves to shouting, the demonstrators started pelting stones at the administration building and at the home of our eminent colleague, Amin El-Rafie, shattering windows, tearing down the large signs bearing the name of the newspaper and smashing the electric lights suspended in the sign's frame. One of the building's janitors was bludgeoned on the forehead. According to reports we received, the police did not arrive until after the demonstrators had left and the crowds dispersed."
A similar incident occurred on 16 November. The following day Al-Ahram reports that demonstrators "attacked the offices of the illustrated Al-Kashkoul magazine on Al-Qased Street, cutting telephone lines, breaking down doors and smashing windows. The demonstrators then stormed into the building where they spared nothing, after which they rushed into the printing press where they scattered the printing letters and smashed the machinery. One group of demonstrators entered the paper storeroom and set it ablaze. After this, they set off in search of the owner of Al-Kashkoul, whom they were unable to find... Bricks continued to rain on the windows and walls of his home for a lengthy period, breaking every window and destroying many pieces of furniture inside. We have learned that by the time police arrived at Al-Kashkoul premises it was too late."
Al-Siyasa suffered less at the hands of the "Wafd's student army" than the other anti-Zaghlul newspapers, if only because it had the funds to furnish sufficient protection for its premises. But it was perhaps for this reason that it was the Zaghlul camp's greatest target for litigation.
In June 1924 several senior staff members of the Liberal Constitutionalists' newspaper were brought before the National Criminal Court. They included the newspaper's director and editor-in-chief, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, 35; Hafez Afifi, 38, a career physician in Hadayeq El-Qubba; and Mohamed Tawfiq Diab, 36, who was Director of Arabic Language Instruction in the American University.
Heikal and Afifi were prosecuted on charges of defamation and slander against the two parliamentary bodies, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, through a series of articles published in Al-Siyasa between 31 March and 11 May that year. The articles to incur the wrath of the Wafd leadership were entitled, "The Party of 600" and "The Party of 600 Pounds." Diab was brought before the court on the same charges arising from another article.
One can see from the extracts of the articles cited in the bill of indictment why the Wafd leadership was so incensed. One passage read, "Now they call themselves the Wafd parliamentary party, although in the past they were Saad Zaghlul's clique. The fact is that they worship Saad, worship the government and worship power. We should also add here another of their salient characteristics -- their love for money." The second article commented on the raise in the monthly stipend to LE600 that the newly elected parliament approved for its members. It said, "Most of our exemplary deputies see the parliament and their representation of the people as a farm, indeed as an asylum for the infirm and retired, upon which they can live in comfort and prosperity." Diab, too, was not one to mince words. The Wafdist deputies, he wrote, "are weak and sense clearly that the people's confidence in them is shaky because they did not win honestly but rather swindled and deceived the people outrageously."
The trial lasted for two weeks. Al-Ahram's correspondent observed that the courtroom was packed with those immediately concerned with the outcome of the trial, "as well as many others, including members of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, lawyers, intellectuals and representatives of the press."
The proceedings began with the opening speech of the chief prosecutor, Othman Aref Bek. Over two lengthy sessions, he presented the grounds for the charges. There was not the shadow of a doubt, he said, that the offending articles portrayed the parliamentary deputies as no more than a collection of incompetent yes-men "with no minds of their own." The writers thus alleged that the parliament was "not an autonomous authority, but rather a body whose only function is to rise and cheer whenever the prime minister appears or speaks, as though its task is merely to hear and obey." Then Aref sought to demonstrate that there was "criminal intent," a claim he substantiated with a lengthy list of slanderous epithets cited from the articles. "Avariciousness, penury, deception, fraud, inability to comprehend, the preference for personal over the national interest, are all blatantly slanderous. These words were written by the accused, who are fully aware of their meanings, and it is, therefore, impossible to believe any claim of good intent."
The prosecutor stressed the distinction between "legitimate criticism" and "lampooning," a distinction that would arouse considerable controversy. "Lampooning is a form of sarcasm that can vary in strength," he explained. "It is aimed at an individual or his actions and is always used with the intent of deprecation and vilification. This intent is clearly apparent in the articles of the accused, which target the persons of the members of parliament, not their deeds. Criticism, by contrast, must focus solely on the deeds, not the character of the person who performed those deeds. To describe the parliament and its members as avaricious swindlers and deceivers, and other such invectives, can only constitute offensive lampooning."
The prosecution included Mahmoud Bek Allam and Makram Ebeid Bek, who represented the parliamentary plaintiffs. Following Aref's opening appeal, Allam addressed the contentions upon which Al-Siyasa based its attack against the parliament, and specifically the raise in stipend the deputies voted for themselves. LE600 was by no means excessive, he argued. That was the amount parliamentary delegates in France were paid in 1906, and it was certainly modest compared to the LE1,000 received by representatives in Australia and the LE1,700 received by House of Representative members in the US. He went on to say that before World War I members of the Egyptian Chamber of Deputies had received LE300 and that certainly the rising costs and the growing economic straits of the intervening ten years justified the raise to LE600.
The defence, for its part, was represented by El-Halbawi Bek, Tawfiq Dos Bek, Mohamed Ali Bek and, lastly, Wahib Doss who defended Tawfiq Diab. The crux of the defence plea was that Al-Siyasa had done no more than to avail itself of the licence accorded to the press to exercise "legitimate criticism." The defense team leader, El-Halbawi, cited extracts from the minutes of the proceedings in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in order to demonstrate that the newspaper's commentaries had not grossly departed from what actually transpired on parliament's floor. He then said, "Were you to ask the Liberal Constitutionalist Party why it was so harsh in its criticism of the majority party it would answer that the adversary's attack against the Constitutionalist Party was much crueller, yet it considered that attack legitimate criticism." He proceeded to recite extracts from Saad Zaghlul's speeches and then declared, "We tolerated all of that because it was within the bounds of criticism in the national interest."
Throughout his argument and particularly his recitations from parliamentary minutes El-Halbawi was continuously interrupted by the chief prosecutor and by Makram Ebeid. Al-Ahram reports that whenever Ebeid spoke he was loudly cheered and applauded by Wafd supporters and that their interruptions were so boisterous that the chief magistrate had to threaten that he would expel them from the courtroom.
The other members of the defence argued along similar lines. Referring to the article in Al-Siyasa describing the parliamentary members' habit of incessantly standing and applauding, Tawfiq Doss added that in one session the deputies rose to applaud 16 times for a total of 36 minutes. "How much time is left to conduct business?" he asks. "And if standing and applauding is an insult, then it is not because we criticised it but rather because it occurred."
On 23 June 1924 the court issued its verdict. Heikal was fined LE30 and Hafez Afifi and Tawfiq Diab were acquitted. Heikal appealed the ruling against him and won, bringing a satisfactory ending to this case and setting a happy legal precedent for journalistic freedom.
Al-Akhbar was the second newspaper to be dragged before the courts. Shortly after the newspaper's offices were attacked by student demonstrators, the public prosecutor summoned Al-Akhbar's editor-in-chief, Amin El-Rafie, and one of its most prominent writers, Abdel-Qader El-Mazni, for questioning in relation to an article that appeared in the newspaper the previous day. The article, written by El-Mazni, was entitled "In the age of the constitution."
At the appointed time, El-Rafie and El-Mazni appeared in the public prosecutor's office with a team of lawyers in tow. The prosecutor explained that he had become aware that the journalists denied the charges of slander brought against them for having accused the prime minister and his government of engineering criminal actions in the form of protest demonstrations targeting certain parliamentary deputies and newspapers in order to coerce them into refraining from criticising the speech from the throne. The prosecutor had one question to ask: "Do you now state that the government did not behave in the manner the indictment charged?"
The journalists answered, "Yes."
Al-Ahram reported, "On the basis of this statement the Chief Public Prosecutor announced that the case has been dismissed, a result of which we congratulate our esteemed colleagues." Undoubtedly, the public sympathy for Amin El-Rafie and his newspaper, in the wake of the assault, accounted for this fortunate ending. But, perhaps, too, certain commentaries in the British press had something to do with it. A commentary in the African World, for example, accused the Zaghlul government of waging a campaign of intimidation against the opposition press, a campaign "that became particularly brutal when a group of student demonstrators marched on the premises of Al-Akhbar and smashed the windows of the editorial rooms." The article continued, "Investigations were conducted with Amin Bek El-Rafie into the damage his newspaper suffered as a result of the demonstrators' assault, and into his allegations against the government."
Next to be prosecuted was Al-Kashkoul, whose editor-in-chief, Suleiman Fawzi, was accused of slandering the prime minister. One edition of the magazine featured a cartoon "depicting His Excellency with a loudspeaker calling out to the people to come watch the members of parliament, whom he described as the wonders of the age." The caption had Zaghlul saying, "We've opened a parliament of many shapes and colours, of mountains and valleys, of cities and towns from Alexandria to Aswan." The same edition also suggested that the prime minister was attempting to disparage his predecessors. Fawzi was also accused of defaming the cabinet members who an article in his magazine said lost their self-control when they were angry and were only moved by the spirit of revenge. Finally, he was charged with offending the members of parliament whom his magazine described as "office boys."
Fawzi's trial opened in Abdin Summary Court on 9 June. Speaking in his own defense, Fawzi argued that his was an illustrated satirical magazine that was very mild compared to similar publications in Europe. He showed the court a copy of an Italian newspaper which contained caricatures of Mussolini as an ironer. Fawzi was not to get off as easily as his colleagues. The court detained him pending trial in the criminal court. In November 1924 that court sentenced Fawzi to a fine of LE30 with instructions to publish the verdict in his magazine. But, when Fawzi failed to publish the verdict, the prosecutor demanded that the court rule to close down the magazine. Fawzi's lawyers objected that the court had already adjudicated in the magazine owner's case, a view that the magistrate subscribed to as he dismissed the prosecutor's plea to the applause of Al-Kashkoul's supporters in the courtroom.
As the year progressed there were several more clashes between the Zaghlul government and the opposition press, although by the time that government resigned in November 1924 their intensity and frequency had slackened. However, the confrontations highlighted an issue that continues to hang over the heads of journalists: the need to draw the thin line between personal disparagement and legitimate criticism.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.