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19 - 25 April 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (386)
The three opposition parties preparing for elections in May 1926 produced what could be called "winners without competition," an oddity unique in Egyptian political history. These unopposed candidates, supported by Al-Ahram, had won before they had even dropped their hats in the race. It was a peculiar development, given how hard the palace and the British high commissioner's office had worked to undermine one of the opposition parties, the powerful Wafd, led by nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul. But protests against the unconstitutional practices of the government and repeated calls to form a government that enjoyed the confidence of the people ultimately won the day and drove a stake into the palace's own ambitious party. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk tells the story of political cutthroat fights for parliamentary seats
Parliamentary duelsIn the Egyptian parliamentary elections of May 1926, 57 out of the 214 candidates won the race before it even began. These unopposed candidates, as they were described in British archives, or "winners without competition," as Al-Ahram dubbed them, are an anomaly in the history of the Egyptian parliamentary system.
It is curious that this extraordinary development has received such little attention in the volumes of studies that have discussed these elections, and it cannot be explained without understanding the political climate that prevailed at the time.
Before May 1926, two parliamentary elections had been held under the 1923 constitution. In both polls, the problem from the point of view of the palace and the British high commissioner's office was how to offset the powerful Wafd Party, led by nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul. In elections in late 1923, it was thought that the Liberal Constitutionalist and National parties could do the job. It transpired, however, that they obtained too few seats to be able to prove an effective opposition, although eventually the "People's Government" was pressured into resigning and the parliament was dissolved in November 1924.
The palace thought it had matters well in hand in the following elections, held in March 1925, after Hassan Nashaat, deputy chief of the Royal Cabinet, engineered the creation of the Ittihad Party and its alliance with the Liberal Constitutionalists in the hopes that together they would defeat the large populist party. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that this coalition had the backing of Minister of Interior Ismail Sidqi Pasha, a majority Wafdist parliament took control and elected Zaghlul as speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. Once again, the king dissolved the parliament, this time within 10 hours of its inaugural session, making it the shortest-lived parliament in Egyptian history.
Following the second dissolution, Prime Minister Ziwar Pasha postponed new elections for several months -- in violation of the constitution -- on the grounds that the March elections made clear that the electoral law must be reviewed. He argued that the Wafdist government of 1924 had already introduced amendments to that law.
According to the 1923 electoral law, parliamentary elections were to be held in two phases. In the first phase, voters cast ballots for an electoral college. Each member of this college would represent 30 voters. In the second phase, the electoral college would elect members of the chamber. The architects of that electoral law had believed it would be easier to control the outcome of the elections through such a two-tier system. It would always be easier to influence a relatively small number of electoral delegates, whether through enticement or intimidation, than the entire electorate, they believed. The system, however, did not prevent the Wafd from sweeping into power in 1924 with over a 90 per cent parliamentary majority.
The 1924 parliament, in turn, amended the electoral law in order to provide for direct elections by secret ballot. Although King Fouad endorsed the amended law in August 1924, the 1925 elections were conducted under the old system, which is to say through a two-tier ballot. Still, as we have seen, the palace and government were devastated by the results.
The Ziwar government continued to rule for several months, under the pretext that it was revising the electoral law, to prolong its stay in power. And as committees convened and adjourned, and the summer recess came and went, it sought to maintain a veneer of legitimacy through a cabinet that combined members from the Ittihad and the Liberal Constitutionalist parties. The tentative alliance between these two parties collapsed, however, following the crisis that erupted over Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razeq's Islam and the Principles of Government. The withdrawal of the Liberal Constitutionalist ministers from the government left the Ziwar government and the Ittihad Party more isolated than ever, all the more so when the Liberal Constitutionalists and the National Party mended fences with the Wafd. This made possible the historic assembly of the dissolved parliament in the Continental Hotel in November 1925, creating the first party coalition in modern Egyptian history.
Backed into a corner, the Ziwar government announced the new electoral law. Its provisions, published in the press in early December 1925, were clearly tailored to the palace's benefit. Not only did it restore the system of indirect elections; it raised the voting age from 21 to 25 and imposed a number of educational and financial constraints on the right to vote. These restrictions were designed to limit the electorate and enable the government to influence it.
The electoral bill spurred the three-party opposition into action. Their senators issued a communiqué appealing to the government to "refrain from such behaviour, especially from enacting the new electoral law. To persist in its implementation, in spite of its violation of the constitution and the will of the people, would risk parliament's refusal to ratify it and lead to the nullification of any results of elections conducted under its provisions."
The government soon capitulated to mounting pressure from the opposition parties and from the British high commissioner's office, which was eager to cut down on popular disturbances. On 19 February 1926, the prime minister notified the speaker of the Senate that the cabinet had decided "to present to the king for ratification a ministerial decree to suspend application of the electoral law of 8 December 1925 and to hold elections in accordance with Law 4 of 1924" -- in other words, by direct ballot.
King Fouad, too, yielded to the opposition's demands following a "national conference" that was held on 21 February in the home of Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha. An Al-Ahram correspondent, on hand to cover the proceedings, described the setting: a large tent had been erected for the occasion. Seats inside were reserved for the deputies and senators of the two preceding parliamentary sessions; mayors who resigned or had been dismissed because of their opposition to Ziwar's electoral law; representatives of the lawyers' and doctors' syndicates and administrative staff of the three coalition parties. At the entrance was a stage upon which was placed a table with "three chairs painted in gold leaf for Their Excellencies Saad Zaghlul Pasha, Adli Yakan Pasha and Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Pasha" -- all former prime ministers.
The conference participants adopted several resolutions. They protested against the unconstitutional practices of the current government and called for national elections to be held as soon as possible "in order to restore parliamentary life to the country." They also vowed to form a government that enjoyed the confidence of the people and called for the cessation of all legislative activity until such a government was formed. Finally, they resolved to draw up the national budget for the forthcoming fiscal year.
Clearly the conference had been thoroughly planned and took positions well coordinated in advance. Not only were the resolutions adopted without a hitch, but the names of those who had failed to appear were published, generating a spate of urgent telegrams from the absentees that conveyed the message: circumstances beyond their control had prevented them from attending and that they fully supported the resolutions.
It now remained for the three opposition parties to prepare for the forthcoming elections, set for 22 May, which would produce the phenomenon of "winners without competition."
The three-party coalition entered the race with a single electoral list competing against the Ittihad Party candidates. The royalist party, meanwhile, suffered a split in its ranks, as we observe in Al-Ahram, which published numerous letters and telegrams from Ittihad Party members who had withdrawn their membership. The pro-palace party, as a result, was only able to produce a relatively limited number of parliamentary candidates: 120 according to Al-Ahram and 103 according to a report from the British high commissioner's office.
Al-Ahram was scathing in its attack on the Ittihad Party candidates. They were individuals "angered because they had not been nominated by the coalition parties." Worse, "they have no political programme or platform. Rather, their sole aim is to obtain a parliamentary seat by any means... For them this seat is not a means to promote an ideology or advocate a programme of reform; it is a throne that entitles them to be addressed as Bek or Pasha and from which they can boast about having spoken to such and such a minister and having been seen entering such and such a ministry."
There were also some 155 independents in the running. According to British press reports, most of these were Wafd Party members seeking to compete against the candidates from the other two parties in the coalition. Al-Ahram sought to explain the phenomenon as though to obviate the effect such reports might have on the coalition. Many candidates sought to run as independents, believing "that being nominated for parliament, even if they do not stand a chance of success, upholds the honour of their family and that if they do win it is a victory for them."
Al-Ahram wrote, "The Egyptian people have furnished proof of their commitment to constitutional life on that day in which their political parties put aside their bitter differences. Once again today, we see affirmation of this dedication, not only in the fact that the people hailed the manner in which the coalition parties marshalled their candidates in the electoral constituencies, but in a public spirit that compelled many individuals whose electoral prospects were slim to publicly stand down and to declare their resolve to support the candidates nominated by the coalition parties."
Regarding the candidates themselves, the newspaper observed that their most important qualification should be "the ability to place service to the nation above service to oneself and to put national interests before family interests." It added, "It is of the utmost folly and self-delusion for a family to believe that a parliamentary seat alone can bring honour to the family or clan, for the presence of an unsuitable person in any post can only bring shame to himself and his relations." Those who believe otherwise "are putting the cart before the horse and placing themselves above the interests of the nation."
Nominations for the May elections drew to a close on 17 April. The following day, Al-Ahram announced that 57 candidates were running unopposed. Of these 43 were Wafdists, nine were from the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, two from the National Party, two were independents and one was an Ittihad Party candidate. Apparently the coalition parties decided not to run against the latter three candidates, whose family affiliations and financial influence were particularly strong in their constituencies. At any rate, they accounted for only 1.5 per cent of the parliamentary seats.
Nor, too, did the coalition parties feel they had much to fear in the other constituencies in which they fielded candidates. As Al-Ahram put it, the coalition formed "a major power recognised by all" and anyone who sought to resist it had "no hope of success." This was why "a quarter of the candidates, a very large number indeed, nominated by the coalition parties, are competing without rivals," it noted. Al-Ahram also took the occasion to report that although Ittihad had announced it intended to field some 120 candidates, only 66 had registered by the deadline, providing yet another indication of the royalist party beating a hasty retreat.
Saad Zaghlul reacted to the nomination results by inviting the unopposed candidates to a gathering to congratulate them on their victory. Al-Ahram reports, "At the celebration, he treated them as his equals in the pursuit of his now unanimously approved policy of upholding the constitution and achieving full independence."
Simultaneously, the nationalist leader issued instructions to the Wafd's committees in the provinces to lend all possible support to the coalition candidates, even in constituencies in which Wafdists running as independents were in the opposition. Al-Ahram praised Zaghlul's action as "the greatest sacrifice which can be made on behalf of the coalition and the ultimate dedication to the consolidation of solidarity to the end."
Ironically, however, Zaghlul himself was not one of the "candidates without rivals." Pitted against him in the Sayeda Zeinab constituency was the Ittihad candidate Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Abdel-Salam Saqr. Evidently, Ittihad officials were determined not to make life too easy for the coalition leader, even though their candidate was foredoomed, not only because he stood no chance of winning, but also because he would be severely buffeted in the course of the campaign.
In addition to the "winners without rivals" the elections produced a number of other phenomena in Egyptian parliamentary history. One was that several independents, particularly those from the Wafd, attempted to portray themselves as coalition candidates. Epitomising this ploy was the mayor of Kom Ombo who placed the following campaign advertisement in the press:
"I have nominated myself on the basis of the principle that has become a part of me since the emergence of the nationalist movement. This principle is unity under the sole leadership of Saad Zaghlul. I would not have undertaken this had I not enjoyed the confidence of all the voters of Kom Ombo."
That several Ittihad candidates sought to deny their allegiance to the party constituted a second anomaly, which we see embodied in other campaign advertisements. Abdel-Rahman Lamloum of Tanadi, for example, stressed that he had withdrawn from the royalist party and "joined the ranks of the nation" on the occasion of the famous Continental Hotel parliamentary assembly on 21 November 1925. "I am running as an independent, relying upon the confidence of the people of my constituency of whom I am one," he declared. The advertisement of another candidate read, "The Ittihad newspaper has reported that I have nominated myself on that party's ticket and I rejected that base slander. Yet the brokers of wickedness have revived their falsehoods, for certain newspapers have published a letter signed by a voter who has alleged that I belong to the Ittihad Party and that the government is supporting me. This is an outright lie. I have never deviated from my principles and I swear that I am a Wafdist dedicated to the principles of our glorious leader, Saad Zaghlul Pasha. Mohamed Ghoneim Abdoun, parliamentary candidate for Faqous."
To counter this phenomenon the Wafd and its co-coalitionists issued repeated communiqués listing the names of its candidates.
Perhaps not unique to these elections were the government's efforts to influence the results. In the March 1925 elections, both the powerful deputy chief of the royal cabinet and the notoriously wily minister of the interior resorted to a number of dubious methods to undermine the Wafd's chances for success. In 1926, however, Nashaat Pasha was no longer in the country, Sidqi Pasha was no longer in office and the palace itself had had its wings clipped following a series of concessions it had been forced to make.
In the vastly different circumstances in 1926, Mohamed Hilmi Issa, who became minister of the interior following the withdrawal of the Liberal Constitutionalists from the Ziwar cabinet, did not have the resourcefulness or stature to fill Sidqi's shoes. If Sidqi had allied himself with palace interests, he was, nevertheless, very much his own man -- "the tiger of Egyptian politics," as he was called at the time, as opposed to "the king's pet cat," the sobriquet given to Issa.
This did not prevent Issa from attempting to tamper with the electoral process, using some of Sidqi's methods. In spite of the fact that Issa had issued instructions to government and electoral officials to refrain from exercising any bias or favouritism in the performance of their duties, the coalition partners lodged numerous complaints concerning blatant irregularities. One letter from the Wafd electoral committee in Al-Wayli district in Cairo illustrates the nature of the government's tactics.
Published in Al-Ahram on 9 May 1926, the letter complains that a large number of constituents in Al-Wayli had not received their voter registration cards, supposedly because they had moved from their homes. Not surprisingly, all of these constituents were known to have pro-Wafd sympathies. When the voters asserted they had not moved, they were told that the information available to Al-Wayli police station said otherwise. Ordinarily shuyukh al-hara, or local neighbourhood elders, were responsible for notifying the police of changes in residence in their quarters. However, when asked, the shuyukh in Al-Wayli denied they had ever told the police that these residents had moved.
Also unable to obtain their voter registration cards were the voter delegates who had been responsible for Zaghlul's victory in the 1925 elections. In this case, however, they were told that official records revealed that these individuals had died and there was nothing they could do to prove that they were "alive and kicking," as the complaint put it.
The Ittihad candidate running in Al-Wayli was Minister of Education Ali Maher Pasha and the complaint from the Wafd electoral committee in Al-Wayli alleged that many senior Ministry of Education teachers and school janitors had been forced to volunteer to campaign for "His Excellency."
Issa's response to such complaints was to institute a number of repressive measures. On 22 May he issued instructions to all provincial directorate chiefs to completely ban all rallies and demonstrations and to have sufficient police and security forces at the ready "for those constituencies in which there are sharp rivalries between the candidates."
In spite of all the government's precautions, the first round of elections brought the coalition an overwhelming victory, with the Wafd winning 144 seats, the Liberal Constitutionalists 28 and the National Party five. The Ittihad won only seven seats. In addition, many of the independents who had won declared afterwards they had switched over to the Wafd. The Wafd-led coalition had delivered a fatal blow to the palace's party.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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