|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
4 - 10 January 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (371)
The Saadi Club, named after legendary nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul, brought under one roof a group of Wafdist deputies agitating for reform in Egypt in the mid-1920s. From the start, the club and its members faced an uphill struggle; even its headquarters and where it would be situated was a battle. The government spied on the club, police raided its premises more than once and its members were beaten up by security forces. The ensuing public outcry -- which included the voice of Al-Ahram -- forced a trial that was followed intently. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk *relates the story of an activist political establishment which the British ironically allowed but was outlawed in its own country
The Saadi Club incident
A landmark date in the history of Egyptian political parties is 26 April 1924. That day, Hamad El-Basel, at the behest of the nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul, convened a meeting of the Wafdist deputies in the Legislative Assembly in order to turn what was up to then a loosely structured mass movement into an institutionalised entity. Earlier that year, the Wafd, with Zaghlul as its head, had swept to power in the parliamentary elections held in January against small but tenacious resistance from rival political parties, notably the Liberal Constitutionalists and the National Party, and from the palace.
In what was essentially the Wafd's first general assembly meeting and following lengthy discussions, the participants voted not to call their organisation a party, "since it would not fully convey the fact that the Wafdists consider themselves representatives of the entire nation." Instead, they opted for a proposal submitted by Makram Ebeid, to call it the "Wafdist Bloc." Although they did not draw up a specific platform at that meeting, they did establish a complete political party structure which, according to Mohamed Farid Hashish, in The Wafd Party from its rise to the treaty of 1936, comprised an executive body made up of Wafdist MPs and a committee of provincial directorate representatives who were to be elected by the General Assembly.
Less than three weeks later, on 15 May, again at Zaghlul's prompting, Mohamed Elwi El-Gazzar summoned the Wafdist senators to a meeting to form that chamber's branch of the Wafdist Bloc, leading to the creation of its executive committee, the first chairman of which was Fathallah Barakat. Then, before the month was out, Saad Zaghlul summoned the two branches of the Wafdist Bloc to form a club which would serve as the premises in which the party could hold its plenary meetings now that the "House of the Nation," as Zaghlul's home was popularly referred to, could no longer accommodate that many Wafdist deputies and senators. The participants agreed to form the Saadi Club, named in honour of "the glorious leader," thus inaugurating an institution with which most students of the history of Egyptian political party life have more than a passing familiarity.
Al-Ahram informs us that the Saadi Club came into being just over five months after Zaghlul's proposal was ratified by the Wafdist Bloc when, on 24 October, Minister of Interior Fathallah Barakat, in his capacity as deputy chairman and treasurer, leased the premises for the club. Most probably the delay in implementing the project was due to the parliament's summer recess that lasted most of the intervening months.
To keep things all in the family, the premises were leased from Tawfiq Nasim, Zaghlul's minister of finance. Thus, the Saadi Club was to be located "on a portion of the ground floor of the Savoy Building." The club's lease extended from November 1924 to 30 April 1928.
However, even before Barakat had finished furnishing the new premises, political events intervened. On 24 November, Zaghlul's "people's government" was forced to resign following the assassination of the governor-general of Sudan and the formation of a new pro-palace government under Ahmed Ziwar. That same day a royal decree delayed the reconvening of parliament for a month. The Wafdist Bloc objected vehemently to this measure, submitting on 2 December a petition to the king protesting that the move was unconstitutional and appealing for the urgent convening of the legislative body in order to address the crisis.
Not only did the petition go unheeded but a week later the king appointed the Wafd's sworn enemy as minister of interior. As soon as Ismail Sidqi took office he began his clampdown on the Wafd. His first act was to deprive the Wafdist Bloc of its new premises. Towards this end, on 20 December, he had Minister of Finance Youssef Qatawi notify Fathallah Barakat that the government considered the lease it had signed for the premises of the Saadi Club null and void and that it was to be restored to the Ministry of Finance forthwith.
The next blow came four days later in the form of a royal decree to dissolve the parliament. In order to prevent the Wafdists from using their premises as a base for organising protest demonstrations, the authorities sent a second evacuation notice to Barakat.
This time Barakat responded that the "Saadi Club has leased the premises in accordance with a valid contract stipulating that the government handed over the premises in exchange for the agreed upon rent, that we have already made many repairs and finally, that neither party to the lease has the right to annul it without the consent of the other."
Sidqi's answer was dramatic and true to the ruthlessness for which he would later become notorious. At 8.30pm on Tuesday 6 January 1925, a police force from Abdin Station raided the club, forcibly occupied it and expelled all workers and staff members.
To prepare for this move, the minister of finance sent a final notice to Fathallah, reminding him that his contract for the premises had been invalidated and notifying him that the Statistics Authority would re-occupy it immediately and that it would take all the necessary measures to return to him the possessions of the Saadi Club. As justification, Qatawi cited Article 64 of the 1923 constitution which forbade ministers to buy or lease government property, even through public auction.
The Wafdists were not about to succumb so easily to these strong-arm tactics. In response to the raid on the Saadi Club, Barakat filed a complaint with the public prosecutor against Abdin police, stating that their action was "a crime punishable under Article 323 of the penal code" and demanding an investigation to bring the perpetrators to account. His second step was to file a suit against the minister of finance. The plea, published in Al-Ahram on 8 January, contained a copy of the rent contract signed by the government and the Saadi Club stating that the club had taken physical possession of the premises under that contract, "having received all the keys, undertaken several necessary refurbishments and purchased furniture and equipment commensurate with a great political association whose members consist of Egypt's parliamentary deputies and senators." It further states that Qatawi, who had issued the evacuation orders, had initially mediated between the government and the property owner in order to lease the disputed premises to serve as the headquarters for the Saadi Club.
Although the case went to court, the members of the Wafdist Bloc did not have the luxury to wait until the legal process took its course. A more expedient solution was needed, and in Al-Ahram of 14 February 1925, we learn that Fathallah Barakat had offered his home to serve as the temporary headquarters for the Saadi Club. His home, located on 20 Saad Zaghlul Street, was "the first building on the western end of that street leading into Qasr Al-Aini. Situated amidst a garden, it is a two-storey structure consisting of 25 rooms of diverse sizes. The Pasha will soon relocate to another home, enabling the administrative committee of the club to take possession of the keys to this spacious home and begin repairing it."
The club opened its doors on 9 April. An Al-Ahram correspondent was on hand to cover the inauguration. Describing the premises, he writes, "In the entrance were several chairs and coat racks. Beyond this vestibule were two large reception rooms, one on the upper floor to serve as an assembly room and the other on the ground floor to serve as a capacious dining room. There is also a bar, a smoking room and a private reception room." The correspondent was especially impressed by the "luxurious furniture and most precious carpets. Some items were made in Europe and others in Egypt and all of which are evidence of the refined taste of the founders and indicative of the fact that this is destined to become one of Egypt's most important clubs."
It was only natural that the Saadi Club members began to frequent it regularly, but under the vigilant eye of Ismail Sidqi, whose agents kept him abreast of everything that was going on and who was waiting for the right time to ruin the club's honeymoon. The minister of interior did not have to wait long. The occasion would present itself on 13 November, when the club was due to celebrate National Struggle Day.
Two days before the celebrations the Ministry of Interior issued a decree prohibiting them, with instructions to the police to enforce the ban. Al-Ahram was aghast. It would not have believed the news had it not been official, it wrote, "because clubs are not public institutions, but rather come under the category of private homes whose privacy should be safeguarded and because the law on assemblies enacted by parliament does not prohibit this form of assembly. Thus, we find it most regrettable that some things are sanctioned for some people but not for others."
It was no surprise, therefore, that when the Wafdist parliament members arrived at the club on 13 November they were met by the police. In the ensuing scuffle 50 members succeeded in gaining entrance to the club although "most had black eyes and some had broken wrists," wrote the British high commissioner in his secret report to London.
The following day the Wafdist newspapers carried the story. "Massacre at the Club," blazoned Al-Balagh. "For Liberty and Independence!" exclaimed Kawkab Al-Sharq. According to these newspapers, ambulances had to be called to take the injured to hospital and Fathallah Barakat delivered his opening address, not in the club, but from the hospital bed. His speech was short but to the point. Even when the country was under martial law the Egyptian people were not prevented from celebrating this occasion. How odd that the British should permit what the Ziwar-Sidqi government outlawed!
On 15 November, Al-Balagh and Kawkab Al-Sharq published the speech Saad Zaghlul would have given at the club had he been able to enter. The nationalist leader described the assassination of the governor-general of Sudan as a conspiracy to bring down the people's government at a time when Egypt's foreign relations were flourishing and domestic reforms were progressing rapidly. Now, however, the government was a den of collusion between the ministers and the colonialists, and corruption has spread throughout the country like never before. Finally, he urged parliament to meet on its own accord, which was its constitutional right, on 21 November.
Not surprisingly, public opinion was incensed by the incident at the Saadi Club. In his report to London, British High Commissioner Lord George Lloyd wrote that mass strikes erupted in Cairo and Alexandria, comprising most secondary schools and all the colleges of law, engineering and education in Cairo and most of the schools and colleges in Alexandria. Al-Ahram shared the public outrage, and on 18 November it initiated a daily column entitled "Public Opinion responds to the Saadi Club incident," in which it wrote that hundreds of telegrams had poured into its offices from all over the country "expressing their strong condemnation of the government's action against the assembly scheduled at the Saadi Club, an action all the more abhorrent for its flagrant violation of the law and for the use of brute force to suppress a constitutionally guaranteed freedom."
Against this wave of public criticism, the government needed a way out of its predicament. Its answer was to prosecute the Saadi Club members who had forced their way into the club. The charges: obstructing public officials in the performance of their duties and assaulting the police. Al-Ahram covered the proceedings with thinly disguised distaste, although it must have taken some pleasure in the fact that initially they worked against the government's expectations. The newspaper reports that the prosecution summoned seven members of the Wafdist Bloc, foremost among whom were Makram Ebeid and Ali El-Shamsi. Before the hearings began the court ordered that three of the defendants -- Hamdi Seif El-Nasr, Ibrahim Rateb and Abu Bakr Rateb -- were to return to hospital to complete their convalescence.
The following day five other defendants were charged. Among them were Zuhair Sabri, Mohamed Salaheddin -- who would become minister of foreign affairs in the Wafd government a quarter of a century later -- and Seif El-Nasr, who was accused of attacking two policemen. In addition, a student at the College of Engineering was arrested and booked for the same charge.
About a week later, Al-Ahram outlined the government's case, which was that when the guests arrived at the Saadi Club and found the police blockade, many returned home. But some 30 individuals went to Groppi's Café on Suleiman Pasha Square then returned to force their way into the club. The indictment continues, "When the police tried to block their way, scuffling broke out leading to minor injuries on both sides." According to the prosecution, the behaviour of the Wafdists was indicative of prior intent to violate the prohibition against the meeting and as such "they are the initiators of the assault."
The trial of the defendants opened in the Sayeda Zeinab Summary Court under tight security, with police forces stationed at the entrances to the streets leading to the court building, another force inside the building and three lorries outside with riot police "to prevent students from going to the court and demonstrate as they have done these past two days." Indeed, one group of preparatory school students attempted to do precisely that, but "one of these lorries intervened and dispersed them."
In order to put the affair in its proper perspective, Barakat countered the government's suit with a suit against the Ministry of Interior, charging two offenses: the violation of the privacy of a home, for which he demanded compensation of LE300, and assault for which he demanded LE700 in compensation. The lawyers for the Wafd further demanded that the two claims be prosecuted in a single trial on the grounds that they were the product of the same incident. The government was clearly caught off guard by this counter-offensive and objected, saying Barakat's intent was "to distort the prosecution's case" with "a case that cannot be taken seriously."
As the court proceedings dragged on, other political developments began to dominate the news, but strangely enough drew attention to the Saadi Club once more. In the summer of 1925 the attempts that began following the downfall of the Zaghlul government in November 1924 to solidify a pro-palace government began to collapse. In order to consolidate support behind the Ziwar government, the palace formed the Ittihad Party, directed by Deputy Chief of the Royal Cabinet Hassan Nashat. In March 1925 the party and the Liberal Constitutionalist Party formed a coalition government, an arrangement that was clearly a marriage of convenience that would not stand the test of time. That time arrived that summer in the form of a crisis triggered by the publication of Islam and the Principles of Government by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq, the book that thwarted King Fouad's campaign to promote himself as the Muslim caliph following the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. It was over what penalties should be meted out to the author that the Ittihad and the Liberal Constitutionalists had a falling out. The disagreement ended with the withdrawal of the Constitutionalists from the coalition and the collapse of that government, leaving the palace to face the Wafd on the one hand, and the combined forces of the Liberal Constitutionalists and the National Party on the other.
The potential for unrest that this situation generated, compounded by Nashat's heavy-handedness, is precisely what the British feared. As a result, Lord Lloyd pressed Fouad into dismissing Nashat from his palace post, the effect of which was to significantly clip the wings of the palace. Then, in another embarrassing turn for the king, the Wafd, the National Party and the Liberal Constitutionalists called a bicameral parliamentary session in the Continental Hotel on 21 November, unanimously voted to withdraw their confidence from the current government and formed a delegation to convey the resolution to the king.
The Saadi Club would come into the limelight once more in the context of the parliament's reassertion of its powers. On the evening of 9 February 1926 members of the Senate met there at the invitation of Fathallah Barakat. This time Ziwar could not intervene as he did on National Struggle Day. Not only was his government significantly weaker, but the government's strong arm, Sidqi, had resigned as minister of interior two months earlier. Also, the guests this time were still members of parliament, for Fouad's decree to dissolve the parliament had only applied to the Chamber of Deputies. Moreover, they represented all the political parties, with the exception of the Ittihad; the meeting, therefore, could not be said to be a purely Wafdist conclave. Thus, although police cordons were stationed around the building, all they could do this time was, as Al-Ahram reports, "to prevent those who were not invited from entering and to maintain order in the area."
The purpose of the meeting in the Saadi Club, which "was spectacularly decorated" for the occasion, was to adopt a resolution calling for the rapid resignation of the Ziwar government. Published in Al-Ahram the following day, the resolution expressed "the nation's discontent at the government's despotic conduct, which has badly damaged public and individual rights." As the government had recently adopted a new electoral law "tailor-made for the king," the senators first demanded its repeal on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and had not been ratified by parliament. Secondly, they demanded that the government reinstate the current parliament, "unless there are serious reasons to hold another election, in which case the balloting should be held in accordance with the constitution and in a manner conducive to building public trust."
Undoubtedly, Al-Ahram readers that day fully realised the importance of the Saadi Club meeting, especially after having read the list of signatories to the resolution, prominent among whom were former prime ministers Adli Yakan and Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat. Indeed, the resolution could be said to mark the true inaugural ceremony of the club, which continued to mirror major political developments in Egypt.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time