|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
12 - 18 April 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (385)
Parliamentary representatives were at a loss in 1925 -- how to meet the people's aspirations for the restitution of political life while avoiding a head-on clash with the government. Parliament had been dissolved in March of that year and the leaders of the Wafd, the Liberal Constitutionalist and the National parties resolved that their respective Chamber of Deputies and Senate representatives would assemble in the parliament building the following day to protest. The government had other ideas and mobilised the police and army to prevent their congregation. Determined to press ahead with their plans, while avoiding clashes with the security forces, the delegates decided to hold their assembly in one of Cairo's major hotels, the Continental. There, in a momentous resolution, the Chamber of Deputies withdrew its confidence in the government. News of the Continental Hotel parliament reverberated abroad where the first signs of the royalist government's impending fall was predicted. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk and Al-Ahram assiduously monitor the developments.
Short-lived hotel parliament
On 22 November 1925 Al-Ahram related the events that marked an unparalleled chapter in the 140-year-old history of the Egyptian parliamentary system. Before telling this story, however, we must first examine the circumstances that made it such an exceptional development in modern Egyptian history.
Almost exactly a year earlier, on 24 November 1924, the first post-constitutional government, the highly popular "People's Government," headed by nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul collapsed as the result of a British ultimatum issued in the wake of the assassination of the British governor-general of Sudan. On its heels came what historians call the first Egyptian royalist government which was virtually at King Fouad's beck and call. The Ahmed Ziwar government had been effectively masterminded by Hassan Nashaat Pasha, deputy chief of the Royal Cabinet, who engineered the creation of the Ittihad (Union) Party, consisting of prominent pro-palace notables. He also enticed into a coalition with it the Liberal Constitutionalist Party which had been the strongest of the opposition parties under the Zaghlul government.
On 23 March 1925, a new parliament with a significant Wafd Party majority elected Zaghlul as its president. Later that day, the parliament was dissolved by royal decree, thus becoming the shortest-lived parliament in Egyptian history -- it had lasted barely 10 hours. The action, moreover, was in flagrant violation of the 1923 Constitution which stipulated that the king may not dissolve parliament twice in succession for the same reason.
For the next nine months the Ziwar government reigned, without any parliamentary monitoring, under the protective wing of the palace. But the foundations of government had already begun to shake. In September 1925, the Liberal Constitutionalists withdrew from the coalition following the crisis that had erupted in August over the publication of Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq's Islam and the Principles of Government. Soon, the royal wing was no longer able to shelter the government from criticisms of its excesses and its lack of legitimacy. Indeed, at the time, the prime minister, a corpulent Circassian who could barely speak Arabic, became the butt of popular jokes and was dubbed "Little Ahmed," the inference being that "Big Ahmed" was King Ahmed Fouad, who pulled his strings.
Ziwar continued to rule without a parliament, pleading that his government was in the process of studying possible amendments to the electoral law. Yet it did not require any great perspicacity for Egyptians to realise that the government, and behind it the king, was seeking to ensure that any future parliament would be securely under the palace's thumb.
Any doubts about this were dispelled when readers opened their Al-Ahram of 22 September 1925 to read the proposed amendments under the headline "The electoral law: the difference between the old and new provisions." Perhaps the most telling amendment was that pertaining to the right to vote. Firstly, it raised the voting age from 21 to 25, the intent of which was undoubtedly to deprive the Wafd Party of its most active bastion of support: youths, students in particular. Secondly, under the proposed law, in order to be able to vote, one had to possess a degree from a higher educational institute or pay a real estate tax or rent, "unless one is 40 years old or more." This highly restrictive provision would exclude the vast majority of popular classes, precisely those sectors of the population that Zaghlul's adversaries referred to when they called him the "leader of the rabble."
Meanwhile, an unexpected rapprochement occurred between erstwhile enemies: the Wafd on the one hand and the Liberal Constitutionalists and the National Party on the other. As a contemporary British commentator put it, Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, chairman of the Liberal Constitutionalists, and Mohamed Mahmoud, his deputy, finally came to the realisation that "Zaghlul's hell is preferable to Hassan Nashaat's paradise." This joining of forces paved the way for a general national convention to examine the steps necessary to restore parliamentary life.
What would greatly enhance their prospects was that, in October, George Lloyd replaced Lord Allenby as British high commissioner to Egypt. Without the bitter animosity his predecessor showed towards Zaghlul, Lloyd feared that the growing autocracy of the palace, as exercised through Nashaat, was driving the country towards mass disturbances. Nevertheless, the new high commissioner was reluctant to take any action to limit the government's power at a time when Britain and Egypt were working out an agreement over Egypt's western borders, an agreement that would never be signed if it depended upon the approval of a government backed by a parliamentary majority.
Against this background, the leaders of the Wafd, the Liberal Constitutionalist and the National parties met on 20 November 1925 and resolved that their respective Chamber of Deputies and Senate representatives would assemble in the parliament building the following day to protest against the dissolution of parliament on 23 March. The government had no intention of allowing the parties to go through with their plans and mobilised the police to prevent their congregation. The coverage of this event in Al-Ahram on 22 November is so complete, more so than all other studies, that it deserves to be reproduced in full.
"Mounted and infantry police forces were deployed at 12 intersections along the roads leading to the parliament building. A police van filled with patrol forces was also stationed at every intersection. Two nights earlier, the armed forces, fully equipped, rushed to take up positions. Thus, by daybreak, the parliament building teemed with soldiers bristling with arms, as though prepared for the full scourge of battle. Police surrounded the walls of the building and in the streets, squadrons stood on the alert, ready to hear the word of their commanders. Meanwhile, mounted officers, in full military regalia and equipped with all the arms and ammunition they might possibly need, paced back and forth on their horses. Every now and then a trumpet would sound as though to keep the men alert. Reconnaissance units were also stationed on the roofs of some neighbouring buildings and atop the parliamentary dome, from which heights they would communicate by flag signals."
The prime minister's office had given parliamentary employees leave for the day. The ministries adjacent to the parliament closed their doors and the staff of the cabinet headquarters and the Ministry of Agriculture left their offices via a route that took them through the Geographic Society. The newspaper adds wryly that many of these ministerial employees used the day off as an opportunity "to linger near the gateways to the garden of the Ministry of Public Works in order to mingle with their colleagues in other ministries."
Elsewhere in Cairo, the authorities had taken a number of other measures to prevent disturbances. Al-Ahram reports, "The bridges between Cairo and Giza and Qalyubiya were drawn open in order to prevent people from those two districts from reaching Cairo. In addition, reserves from the Cairo police force were dispatched to Giza and Benha north of Cairo in order to back up the forces in those districts should the need arise."
The precautions, however, did not prevent students of various secondary schools and higher educational institutes from declaring a strike in support of the members of parliament. A large group of students succeeded in breaking through a police cordon and made their way to the gates of Abdin Palace where they shouted slogans which called for the constitution and the will of the people to be respected. The demonstrators were quickly dispersed by police.
Because the parliament building had become an armed fortress, any clash between the security forces and the public would be certain to escalate into widespread violence. Zaghlul issued an appeal, urging people to exercise restraint. The government, he said, "has demonstrated that force is the absolute proof of its correctness and violence its means to prevail. Do not allow it to goad you. Meet stupid provocation with prudent dignity, and foolish harassment with wise silence. Remember that the might by which they seek to obstruct the path of your representatives is the clearest demonstration of your usurped rights and their brutal iniquity."
The parliamentary representatives were not to be deterred. Determined to press ahead with their plans, while avoiding clashes with the security forces, they decided to hold their assembly in one of Cairo's major hotels, the Continental. Thirty-three deputies and senators had spent the previous night in this large downtown hotel in order to prepare for the following day's assembly. Now, instead of proceeding to the parliament building as planned, they would be joined in the hotel by their colleagues. Thus, on the morning of 21 November, 1925, the members of parliament made their way, individually and in small groups, to the Continental Hotel. By the time the session commenced, 177 members, or an absolute majority of both houses, were present. Al-Ahram's correspondent observed that Ziwar Pasha, who was a resident of the Continental, happened to be leaving the hotel at the time when the parliamentarians were arriving and "sped to his car with an alacrity that won the admiration of all."
The Continental Hotel, as it appeared decades ago. The hotel is still standing
Al-Ahram's headlines on 22 November encapsulated the events of the previous day. "Parliament assembles -- a historic session in the Continental Hotel," the headlines blared. Under the banner headlines, the subheadings read: "Soldiers mobilise. Parliament building transformed into military garrison. Parliament assembles with absolute majority. A momentous resolution passed. Party leaders shake hands. Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha speaks. Demonstrations on the streets."
The "momentous resolution" passed by the participants in the historic Continental Hotel parliamentary session read:
"In accordance with the provisions of Article 96 of the constitution, the members of parliament, having been prevented by the threat of force from access to the parliament building, assembled today -- 21 November 1925 -- in the Continental Hotel, and with the legal quorum of members in attendance and following deliberations on the current situation, they unanimously agreed upon the following:
"Firstly, to protest the unconstitutional actions of the government and the use of force to prevent the members of parliament from assembling in the parliament building;
"Secondly, the Chamber of Deputies has withdrawn its confidence in the government, in accordance with Article 65 of the constitution;
"Thirdly, to consider this a legally valid session and to continue to hold parliamentary meetings at the times and places determined by the members;
"Fourthly, to publish this resolution in all newspapers."
Following the passage of the resolution, the members elected a delegation, consisting of Fathallah Barakat of the Wafd, Mohamed Mahmoud of the Liberal Constitutionalists and Abdel-Hamid Said of the National Party to convey the resolution to the king. To further establish the legitimacy of the "Continental Hotel Parliament," the participants elected an executive board, consisting of Zaghlul as speaker, Mahmoud and Said as deputy speakers and Wisa Wasef, Ali El-Shamsi, Abdel-Meguid Abu Samra and Ahmed Abdel-Ghaffar as secretaries.
The parliament also released a communiqué to all foreign diplomatic representatives in the Egyptian capital, notifying them of the unconstitutionality of the Ziwar government. It stated, "It has become imperative to notify all nations that all treaties or other agreements that they have concluded or intend to conclude with this government are invalid and not binding on the Egyptian nation."
Al-Ahram gave prominence to the speech delivered by Mahmoud because of its significance regarding the end of three years of animosity between the Liberal Constitutionalists and the Wafd. Mahmoud stressed that the historic parliamentary assembly was not a question of personalities but a manifestation "of the power of our unity and the strength of our resolve." He continued, "The only way to defend the constitution is to unite and recite in unison the government's oath. Our mission is to rescue the constitution or die in the struggle." Following his speech Mahmoud held out his hand to shake that of Zaghlul to the applause and loud cheers of all present.
Al-Ahram's correspondent describes the closing scene of this historic meeting. As soon as Zaghlul emerged from the Continental, "throngs of people who massed on both sides of the street leading from the hotel to the 'house of the nation' (Zaghlul's home) erupted into fervent applause and cheers." As the procession led by the speaker of the parliament proceeded through the streets, "the crowds applauded every senator and deputy who passed in front of them." Outside the offices of Al-Ittihad newspaper, "demonstrators rallied in support of the constitution, Zaghlul, the senators and deputies. Police quickly moved in to disperse the protesters, taking three students to the Abdin police station."
Following the tumultuous curtain call on the "Continental Hotel Parliament," Egyptians held their breath in anticipation of the results. Undoubtedly, the headline of Al-Ahram's editorial of 23 November epitomised their thoughts: "That day must have a tomorrow. What will that tomorrow bring?" Evidently, the government sought to portray the extraordinary session in parliament as an "open ploy in a bid for power," but the editorial insisted that the crux of the matter is not a contest over seats in government but rather the people's aspirations for the restitution of constitutional life. It concluded, "If all sides remain committed to this noble purpose then it should be possible to reach the desired solution through mutual understanding... and annul the edict of 24 March to dissolve parliament and permit the assembly that met in the Continental Hotel to continue its work and create a coalition government on the basis of a platform approved by all parties."
Not surprisingly, the major political party newspapers -- Al-Balagh and Kawkab Al-Sharq, representing the Wafd; Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalists; and the National Party's Al-Akhbar -- resounded with praise for the historic parliamentary session. Not surprisingly, too, the only discordant note was struck by the royalist party's mouthpiece, Al-Ittihad, which condemned the events of 21 November as "a violation of the constitution, an assault against public order and a typical manifestation of chaos."
News of the Continental Hotel Parliament reverberated abroad and it is in the British press above all that we detect the first signs of the royalist government's impending fall. As was its custom, Al-Ahram assiduously monitored reactions. It cited the Daily Mail, which asserted that Zaghlul was "determined to continue his massive campaign until he regains his power and influence."
It also published a lengthy piece from the Daily Telegraph on the Egyptian opposition parties which, despite the government's efforts, succeeded in achieving their goal. "There is no doubt that what took place on Saturday is not just a one-shot affair but the beginning of a specific strategy," it wrote. "Of note that day was the jubilation of the students, including girls of no more than 10 years old who, as they were going home in their school buses, shouted, 'Egypt for the Egyptians!' and 'Long live Saad Zaghlul!'"
From the Daily Herald came a report by its political correspondent. "The Egyptian national movement has once again rallied under the banner of Zaghlul Pasha," he wrote. "Now that his old supporters like Mahmoud Pasha have returned to work with him, dedicated and loyal as they are, his leadership is uncontested." The correspondent took the opportunity to praise the cleverness of the opposition parties' choice of the Continental Hotel as their venue for the unique parliamentary assembly. "They knew that government forces would not enter it because it is foreign-owned; British-owned to be precise."
If the Ziwar government was wont to play down the Continental Hotel assembly as a "farcical comedy à la Marivaux," not all connected with the palace were like-minded. In a little-known development reported by the Daily Telegraph, several members of the royal family appealed to Prince Youssef Kamal to convey to the king their belief that it was no longer appropriate for Nashaat Pasha to remain in his post with all the power and influence it conferred upon him.
The government also came under attack for keeping the security cordon around the parliament building and adopting a number of measures to prevent a second parliamentary assembly. Particularly shocking was the warning it issued to all the major hotels to the effect that if they permitted any such assemblies in their convention halls, they would risk police intervention.
These measures did not succeed in eroding the resolve of the parliamentary representatives. As though in a sudden burst of the kind of political energy that royal determination had sought to repress the previous year, the three major opposition parties held one meeting after another, delegations appearing in rapid succession at Zaghlul's "House of the Nation." There, he delivered a series of impassioned speeches, such as that in which he scoffed at the communiqué issued by the Ittihad Party, declaring the renewal of its confidence in the government. "The government has declared its confidence in itself!" proclaimed Zaghlul. The home of Mohamed Mahmoud was also the scene of intense activity. The Liberal Constitutionalist leader declared that "the unity of the parties is irreversible." Abdel-Hamid Said of the National Party echoed the same, saying, "Our unity is the only way to rescue the nation from its current situation. The power of this unity emerged in its full glory in 1919 when the nation lifted its head, once bowed in submission, leading the usurpers to believe that we had relinquished our rights and abandoned our duties."
Keeping a watchful eye on all this fervent activity was, of course, the British high commissioner, who was ultimately instrumental in defusing the crisis. Amidst a flurry of confidential reports sent to his superiors in the Foreign Office during that period came Lloyd's account of the substance of his meeting with King Fouad on 8 December. He said he alerted Fouad to the dangers facing the throne, upon which the British had placed him. He assured the king that he could continue to rely on the support and dedication of the British government. Finally, Lloyd advised Fouad to take the measures necessary to create a loyal and moderate parliament.
In a subsequent report to his superiors, Lloyd relates that he went a step further and urged the king not only to dismiss Nashaat Pasha but throw him out of the country. He explained that Nashaat's machinations had undermined one government department after another and that his despotism had succeeded in making him the most reviled political figure in Egypt in living memory. It was not in Fouad's interests to maintain a relationship with such an individual, he advised, and the wisest move would be to relieve him of his duties as soon as possible.
King Fouad was only too aware of how difficult it would be to ignore Britain's "advice." Within 48 hours of the meeting with Lloyd, he had Nashaat appointed as Egypt's minister plenipotentiary to Spain. The despised palace official immediately packed up and left the country. The leaders of the nationalist movement welcomed this development. With the architect of the royalist schemes now gone, they saw the imminent downfall of the Ziwar government which, indeed, came soon.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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