|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
25 - 31 January 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (374)
The first royalist party
The mid-1920s saw the formation of Egypt's first puppet royalist party. As its name suggests, Al-Ittihad was founded to serve the cause of national unity. This it did, but not in the manner it had intended -- the party united the powers which opposed it, the popular Wafd Party and the Liberal Constitutional Party. From the outset it met resistance from those who believed it had no specific platform and paid only lip service to the issue of independence. Al-Ahram waged its own campaign against Al-Ittihad and, as Dr Yunan Labib Rizk explains, felt little sympathy as it swiftly became relegated to a historical footnote
The reign of King Fouad (1917-1936) was unique for a phenomenon never seen in Egypt before: palace puppet parties. The first was Al-Ittihad, or union, the creation of which was engineered by the palace in 1925, followed five years later by the Al-Shaab (People's) Party after the former proved no longer effective.
Sheikh Ali Youssef
It is true that when the political party system was first introduced in Egypt in the early 20th century there was one party that was generally thought to have its strings pulled from the throne. This was not the case. The Constitutional Reform Party, founded in 1907 by Sheikh Ali Youssef, proprietor of Al-Mu'ayyad, may have allied itself with the Khedive Abbas II against Mustafa Kamel's National Party, but it was far from being the khedive's tool.
Then, by the end of Fouad's reign, palace tactics changed when it was thought that it could accomplish its goals by less obvious means. The architect of the new strategy was Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, the wily chief of the Royal Cabinet who understood that the king's purpose in founding royalist parties was to erode support for the populist Wafd Party and realised that a more effective way to accomplish this goal was to strike the party from within. This he succeeded in doing twice, once in 1938 when he contrived to create the splinter Saadist Party headed by Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi, two powerful figures who had just resigned from the Wafd. The second time was in 1943, when he succeeded in engineering the rift between then Wafd Chairman Mustafa El-Nahhas and Wafd Secretary Makram Ebeid, bringing to an end one of the most famous political friendships in modern Egyptian history, an end made all the more acrimonious when the latter formed the Wafdist Bloc.
The situation was different in the mid-1920s when the first royalist party was founded. Egypt had only recently gained nominal independence (1922) and even more recently its first constitution, under which the nation brought into power the fervently nationalist "people's government" headed by Saad Zaghlul. It was to counter Zaghlul's popularity that Dubara Palace, the seat of the British high commissioner and all the imperial might he represented, and Abdin Palace, from where King Fouad I determinedly schemed to acquire more autocratic powers, colluded to undermine the exuberant nationalist movement and the Zaghlul-led Wafd Party that was riding a wave of popularity. The man to implement their plans was Deputy Chief of the Royal Cabinet Hassan Nashat.
Al-Ahram began its coverage of Egypt's first royalist party in early January 1925 under the headline, "Al-Ittihad," the name Nashat chose for the new party ostensibly because its purpose was to heal the rifts that had beset the nation under the Zaghlul government that had fallen in November 1924. From the outset Al-Ahram appears to have viewed the new party with suspicion. It relates that on 9 January 1925 Amin Mansour, an Alexandrian notable, invited 35 citizens to found a new party "whose mission would be to serve the cause of national unity." What is telling is the prominence the newspaper gave to the speech of support delivered by Tawfiq Tannous, correspondent for Al-Muqattam in Alexandria. Al-Muqattam, since its founding in 1889, was widely known as the mouthpiece of the British occupation and by associating it so closely to Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahram was signalling its suspicions about the relationship between the new party and the powers that be.
The newspaper also expressed its viewpoint by emphasising some comments made by individuals who attended the 9 January meeting. One was Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a noted lawyer, who expressed his surprise why anyone should support the creation of a new party which had no specific platform. A second was Mustafa El-Tarabulsi, another lawyer, who remarked, "I can see no particular advantage deriving from this party. If its purpose is to serve and rally behind the throne, then I say that the entire nation already rallies behind the throne without the need for a special political party."
The fathers of Al-Ittihad hoped to build a strong base of support in Alexandria since they felt they stood a better chance of success at such a relatively safe distance from Cairo and the "House of the Nation," as Zaghlul's home was commonly known, and from where Zaghlul had already begun to campaign against the palace's designs. In one statement, for example, he declared that the new party "will not have a single member firm in his beliefs or convinced of the principles which the party advocates." The nationalist leader continues, "All the party's supporters were hand-picked by the authorities. Political parties do not appear overnight and they are not easy to form. But I fear nothing from that party which carries in its heart all the necessary ingredients for its dissolution."
Not all were convinced that Alexandria was the most appropriate base. On 21 January, Al-Ahram's correspondent in the port city commented, "This party cannot hope to grow in Alexandria because its political and social climate is unfavourable in view of the continued prevalence in the city of the nationalist, Wafdist and openly pro-Zaghlul spirit." The correspondent's opinion was reinforced nine days later by a meeting in Hotel Claridge to create Al-Ittihad's Alexandrian branch committee. According to the newspaper, only 21 people were interested in becoming members of the party. None of these were "individuals known to be involved in politics," while "most were merchants, some of whom were well-known in the city for their membership in philanthropic societies."
The new party met the same resistance in other provinces. From Sharqiya, Al-Ahram's correspondent in Zaqaziq observed how people were refusing to respond to the government's recruitment drive for the new party. "The people of the city are reluctant to join because their hearts remain true to their allegiances, all ardent in their love for their king and unswerving in their veneration of Zaghlul." The correspondent also reported that the "party of dissension," as he dubbed Al-Ittihad, called for a rally in the Sharqiya Club which a number of the club's members objected to on the grounds that its charter prohibits any political activity on the premises. Meanwhile, the police commissioner in Bilbeis earned Al-Ahram's censure for having called a meeting of rural notables to invite them to pay LE5 in membership fees to the new party. "Most of them refused and left the meeting." The parliamentary deputy from Samannoud, Mustafa El-Nahhas, lodged a protest against the district commissioner for distributing propaganda material for Al-Ittihad at LE5 a subscription.
At the same time, many individuals who had been reported in newspapers as having joined the party sent letters to Al-Ahram denying those reports. Khalil Effendi Khidr from Alexandria, for example, objected to the inclusion of his name among the members of the board of directors of the Alexandria branch of Al-Ittihad Party, and took the opportunity "to reiterate my loyalty and my dedication to the principles of the chairman Saad Zaghlul Pasha."
In spite of these numerous inauspicious signs, Hassan Nashat was determined to push ahead with the formation of the first royalist party, a process Al-Ahram followed with considerable resentment. Thus, the newspaper was on hand at 4.00pm on Saturday 10 January 1925 in the Semiramis Hotel where 300 notables gathered to form the new party. The assembly was addressed by three former Wafdists whom the deputy chief of the royal cabinet had lured into the royalist camp. These were Fouad Moussa Pasha, one of the independent senators of the Wafdist Bloc;
Kheirat Radi Bek, a lawyer at the religious courts and Abdel-Halim El-Biali, another lawyer and once one of the most ardent supporters of Zaghlul who split from the Wafd on the grounds that its loyalty to the throne had lessened.
Al-Ahram goes on to report that the party's first 28-member board was formed during this assembly. The newspaper commented no further upon its membership other than to point out that they were all eminent political and religious figures. British confidential archives have revealed a report from the high commissioner to the Foreign Office offering his opinion on the pillars of the new party. A significant portion of Al-Ittihad's board, he observed, were landowners and former members of the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, and included among others Mohamed El-Badrawi Ashur, Sarageddine Chahin, Ahmed Qurashi, Abdel-Rahman Lamloum and Zakariya Namiq. The high commissioner goes on to suggest that whatever way these individuals were lured into Al-Ittihad ranks, they had clearly been targeted for their ability to "furnish valuable financial contributions." Wealthy rural notables formed another major component of the board's membership, the objective here being to extend the party into the provincial directorates where branch committees could be founded under the auspices of these notables. As a result, Allenby observes, these notables would be the most influential factor in the rural electoral constituencies by virtue of the powerful family bonds they represent, along with their ability to secure large percentages of the peasant vote.
Returning to the Semiramis, Al-Ahram reports that the assembly decided to publish two newspapers to represent Al-Ittihad's viewpoint. The first was given the party's name and placed under the management of Abdel-Halim El-Biali, who has been described as Saad Zaghlul's "Judas." The second was the French language La Liberté, formerly an advocate of Zaghlul. Its change of editorial policy so incensed its editor-in-chief Leon Castro that he decided to resign and leave the paper to the palace and its lackeys.
Al-Ahram found it difficult to maintain its journalistic neutrality on this occasion, but betrayed its bias by resorting to a customary ruse, which was to relay the commentaries that appeared in other newspapers. Not surprisingly, most of the commentaries were critical of the new party. Thus it cited the following from Al-Liwa' Al-Misri: "We have no idea what the ideology of the new party is or what its aims are. Its members are unknown figures and its principles undeclared. Nor can we fathom the wisdom behind its founding, as the nation has no need for it at a time when the country is under occupation and everyone's most ardent desire is to rid Egypt of the British." And from Al-Akhbar, the mouthpiece of the National Party, we read, "It is regrettable to see the nation disintegrating into diverse and opposing parties and factions at a time in which our circumstances compel us to unite around a single national charter."
Al-Ahram also relayed the Wafdist newspapers' opinions on the royalist party. The editor-in-chief of Kawkab Al-Sharq commented, "The appeal to the people to join this party on the grounds that it is the party of the throne may have the effect of alienating them." Al-Balagh described Al-Ittihad as "the party in favour of dropping the demand for independence for now and simply setting up the foundations that will enable us to say after dozens of years that we are ready to become independent." The Wafdist newspaper was referring to Al-Ittihad's platform, in which only one of its 13 points makes reference to the demand for independence, and then only in passing, providing for "the dissemination inside the country of the call to preserve the spirit of independence and, abroad, of the appeal to convince other nations of the justice of the Egyptian cause."
Most politicians who were invited to assume the chairmanship of Al-Ittihad refused. Nashat approached some of the most implacable enemies of the Wafd -- former Prime Minister Tawfiq Nassim, current Prime Minister Ahmed Ziwar, Egypt's ambassador to London Aziz Ezzat -- all of whom turned down his offer, whether for fear of entering political party battles for which they were ill equipped or out of reluctance to become palace puppets whose strings were manipulated by the chief of the Royal Cabinet.
It was only after all these efforts failed and after the British periodical The Near East observed that the new party was still feeble because it lacked a chairman that Nashat rushed to yet another former prime minister -- Yahya Ibrahim, who served as acting head of government at the time of the first elections held under the new post-independence constitution. Evidently, Ibrahim wanted to take another stab at becoming prime minister and felt that he stood a good chance at the head of a party backed by both the king and the British.
The palace now believed that its party was solid enough to come out ahead in an electoral battle, especially if allied with the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, another Wafd antagonist. Its calculations proved far off the mark. In March, the first royalist party had its first trial run. In addition to coordinating its campaign with the Liberal Constitutionalists, Al-Ittihad also enjoyed the full backing of Minister of Interior Ismail Sidqi who left no stone unturned in his attempt to secure Al-Ittihad's victory.
Al-Ahram reported on the pressures to which voters particularly in the provinces were subjected at the hands of the Ministry of the Interior. It relayed to its readers a letter from 14 citizens from Sidi Salem in Al-Gharbiya complaining that "government employees are working to promote Al-Ittihad over other political parties and are summoning people to district headquarters in order to exact from them LE5 in party dues."
From Mansoura Al-Ahram's correspondent reports that the district police commissioner held a meeting with local mayors urging them to join Al-Ittihad as his deputy was passing the hat around the audience collecting party subscription fees.
In spite of all efforts and precautions, the new party failed miserably in the parliamentary elections which produced a 123-vote majority for Saad Zaghlul, as opposed to 85 votes for the government's candidate, who had the support of all the other parties running against the Wafd. So incensed was the palace at seeing Zaghlul elected once again as prime minister that King Fouad issued a royal decree dissolving the newly-elected Chamber of Deputies on the very day of its inaugural session, leaving the country without a parliament for the next 14 months.
This development did not leave the first royalist party idle. Several days before the March elections, King Fouad issued an edict calling for a cabinet reshuffle that would represent a coalition between the Ittihad and Liberal Constitutionalist parties. The Ittihad ministers included party head Yahya Ibrahim, Youssef Qatawi, Moussa Fouad and Ali Maher, and from the Liberal Constitutionalists came their party chief Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, their party secretary Mohamed Ali and their most important orator Tawfiq Dos. Together, these individuals occupied seven out of the 10 cabinet posts.
The summer of that year, however, brought the outcry over Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq's Islam and the Principles of Government and the crisis that precipitated the collapse of the coalition. Many were uncomfortable that the government was now in the hands of Al-Ittihad following the resignation of the Liberal Constitutionalists. Wrote Al-Ahram on 17 September, under the headline "Political Life in Egypt and the Duty of Al-Ittihad Party: "The party has now assumed the reins of power at a time when parliament is non-existent, the constitution is suspended and the public is anxious over the future of our constitutional life. Al-Ittihad has not presented an agenda nor adopted the system followed by political parties that come to power in other democratic countries. Its internal organisational structure is ambiguous and its methods of expansion are highly suspect." In a follow-up commentary the next day, the newspaper reminded the government that Al-Ittihad had been a minority party in the Chamber of Deputies, as a result of which its current government was "unconstitutional."
The pullout of the Liberal Constitutionalists signalled the end of the Ziwar government and the palace's control over power. The two major parties, the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalists, joined hands to topple this government. Perhaps the most important step they took towards this end was to convene a session of the dissolved parliament. Meeting, not under the parliamentary dome but in the Continental Hotel, on 21 November, the deputies voted unanimously to withdraw their confidence from the government. This, in turn, prompted the British high commissioner, eager to contain the crisis, to pressure the king into dismissing Nashat from the Royal Cabinet, which took place on 10 December.
These developments encouraged many members of the first royalist party to resign, to the extent that it seemed that each successive edition of Al-Ahram that month brought news of yet another departure from its ranks.
Undoubtedly sensing that the rug had been pulled out from under their feet, a panicky party leadership held a meeting in Al-Ittihad's headquarters on 9 February 1926 and issued a statement contradicting every action the party had taken up to that point. They asserted that the party would intensify its efforts to restore parliamentary life as soon as possible and that it was firm in its commitment to constitutional order. Egyptian public opinion, of course, was not that gullible, as can be seen in the results of the parliamentary elections that were held at the end of May that year. Although Al-Ittihad initially put 103 of its members into the race, by the time of the elections the party list contained no more than 66 candidates, the others having chosen to abandon the party. And wisely so, as only four out of the 66 Al-Ittihad contestants succeeded in winning a parliamentary seat, demonstrating the true popularity of the first royalist party and signalling its demise.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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