|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
3 - 9 May 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (388)
In the midst of parliamentary victory celebrations in 1926, the Wafd Party chairman Saad Zaghlul was universally urged to run for prime minister of a new government. The deteriorating health of the nationalist hero made him hesitant over such a move but the sweeping poll victory, plus a court ruling which cleared the Wafd of any wrongdoing in the assassination of the governor-general of Sudan, persuaded Zaghlul to throw his hat into the ring -- much to the chagrin of his arch-foes, Britain and King Fouad. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* writes on the political crisis which turned out to be Zaghlul's last fight before he died the following year.
Zaghlul's last battle
On 4 June 1926 Al-Ahram reported, "A great historic assembly took place in the main hall of the Continental Hotel. It was one of several meetings in the past few years to have a profound and immediate impact on life in Egypt and the development of the nationalist movement." This was no exaggeration. Nor was it excessive that the newspaper devoted most of the first and second pages of its edition to covering it.
On the surface the purpose of the assembly was to celebrate the landslide victory the three-party coalition made up of the Wafd, Liberal Constitutionalist and National parties had scored in the parliamentary elections held a few weeks earlier. Having won all of the 214 parliamentary seats with the exception of a paltry seven that went to the pro-palace Ittihad Party, the coalition's victory was certainly worth celebrating.
In the centre of the stage sat nationalist hero and Wafd Party chairman Saad Zaghlul. On either side of him were Adli Yakan and Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat, both former prime ministers, as well as National Party leader Hafez Ramadan. The audience was made up of all who won seats in the Chamber of Deputies, with the exception, of course, of the few Ittihad deputies who undoubtedly were too embarrassed to show their faces in the midst of such a throng of jubilant coalition victors.
To those unaware of what was taking place behind the scenes, the celebration proceeded according to plan. Three party officials -- Ramadan, Ibrahim El-Hilbawi and Makram Ebeid -- delivered victory speeches. Ramadan praised the triumph of the forces of right over wrong. El-Hilbawi urged every deputy "to express his gratitude to the voters of his constituency for bestowing their trust and vowed to defend their interests." Ebeid lauded the "glorious leader" Saad Zaghlul. "Who among us could not help but notice in the course of our campaigns how, at the mere mention of your name, eyes would gleam with reverence, hands would thunder in applause and hearts would beat in supplication?"
Eventually Ahmed Ramzi, the deputy for Timai Al-Amdid, spoke. Addressing Zaghlul, he said, "I reverently greet you and as a soldier loyal to his great leader, I salute you. I will venture to make a request, which perhaps you will grant, for we have never known you to refuse a request."
Then he dropped a bombshell: "His Excellency our leader assumed the post of prime minister in 1924 in response to the wishes of the deputies. However, the strains of office have made him determined not to assume this position again. Yet we fear that his generosity and selflessness will make him change his mind, for how often has he sacrificed his health on behalf of the nation?"
Ramzi urged Zaghlul not to put his health -- "the nation's principal asset" -- at risk and instead proposed that should he be offered the prime minister's post, it be given to an individual such as Yakan, whom Zaghlul had supported once before in view of Yakan's "vast expertise and soundness of judgment." In so doing, "the leader of the people will remain with the people and the people will be united under the speaker of the House."
Many observers, such as the well-known writer Fikri Abaza, were shocked by this sudden development and appealed to Zaghlul not to step aside. They were unprepared for Zaghlul's response. When his turn to speak came, the popular nationalist leader said, "I did not want the post (of prime minister) in 1924 and only accepted it in deference to the wishes of the members of parliament. I tasted the sweetness and bitterness of that position; actually -- may God forgive me -- only its bitterness for I found no sweetness in it.
"After I stepped down I noticed that my health had deteriorated and I took an irreversible vow never to assume the post again. I told this to the press, to my friends in private and to many others in public. My determination was sincere, my decision firm. When the recent results appeared I persisted in my resolve and my recent illness rendered me yet more determined. I pleaded with my good friend, His Excellency Adli Yakan, to agree to head the government instead of me. He accepted, although very reluctantly, and we then prepared ourselves in the utmost candour and concord."
The parliamentary assembly in the Continental Hotel concluded with a call to vote on Ramzi's request to Zaghlul. All members of parliament stood in a show of unanimous agreement.
This dramatic scene did not mark the beginning of the formation of the 35th government in modern Egyptian history, but rather the end. The actual story begins at the end of April 1926, before the parliamentary elections. As the victory of the coalition was virtually assured in advance, the three parties struck an agreement to form a coalition government headed by Yakan. As the British high commissioner reported to London on 20 May 1926, Zaghlul had given Yakan a free hand in forming the new cabinet and was determined not to assume the premiership under any circumstances -- although he may accept the position of speaker of the house if his health permits.
Right: British High Commissioner Lord George Lloyd, below: former prime ministers Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat and Adli Yakan and the commissioner's official representative Walter Smart
Two days later, however, the British learned that Zaghlul had begun to relent slightly. Now Zaghlul claimed that pressure from his supporters compelled him to push for a predominantly Wafdist government. As the London Times of 22 May put it, "Zaghlul Pasha neither intends to assume office nor create a purely Wafdist government. His sole aim is to have a say in the formation of a government in which Liberal Constitutionalist members would be present."
The British newspaper went on to speculate as to whether Zaghlul would adhere to his position following the elections. "Will he be able to resist temptation when he hears the cheers of his followers and supporters?" it asked. The Times' suspicions were well placed, for within hours of the election results, Zaghlul changed his mind. Naturally, this was in part due to the sweeping victory the Wafd candidates scored in the elections -- 157 seats as opposed to 28 won by the candidates the Liberal Constitutionalists had fielded and five by the Nationalist Party candidates. Also indicative of the appeal of the Wafd Party was that many of its members who had run as independents defeated candidates from the other two parties in several constituencies primarily on the strength of their party affiliation.
However, Zaghlul's change of heart was also due in large measure to the ruling of the Criminal Court, issued three days after the elections, on a case related to the assassination of Sir Lee Stack, governor-general of Sudan. Following the assassination, the Ziwar government made every effort to establish involvement of the Wafd in the assassination. Unable to find any concrete connection, the prosecution succeeded in pressuring one of the defendants, Shafiq Mansour, into confessing that Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi, both prominent Wafd figures, were instrumental in Sir Lee's murder. Mansour was executed soon after a confession was extracted.
The defence, however, succeeded in proving not only that Mansour had been coerced but that the police had fabricated parts of the confession he signed. Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of the inconsistencies in this document, the court declared the two Wafd officials innocent of any involvement in the assassination.
Now that the court had exonerated the Wafd from any involvement in the assassination, the Wafd leadership felt that the ruling, passed by a majority of the tribunal, nullified any pretexts the British could voice in opposition to a second Zaghlul-led government.
Of course Zaghlul could not keep changing his position on heading a government. But on the day the election results were announced he made it known that he would not issue a public statement until after King Fouad had summoned him, as the leader of the majority in parliament, to discuss the formation of the next government. This move precipitated some subtle manoeuvrings.
While British High Commissioner Lord George Lloyd urged Zaghlul to release a statement before meeting with the king so that it would not appear that the king had rejected Zaghlul as prime minister, Yakan told the high commissioner that he would be very reluctant to participate in a Zaghlul-led government unless he was certain that the British would agree to such a government. Otherwise, he added, he would withdraw from the arena and watch developments take their course.
At this time, Mr Delaney, the Reuters representative in Cairo, visited Zaghlul at his home and told him that British public opinion would be greatly reassured if he publicly declared his unwillingness to head a government and supported whomever is appointed to form it. Zaghlul made it clear that he was not about to be drawn into delivering a statement that would restrict his options. Simultaneously, two mouthpieces for the pro-palace Ittihad Party, La Liberté and Al-Ittihad, charged that by refusing to accept the premiership, the Wafd leader was seeking to curry favour with the British.
Finally, on 28 May, Zaghlul issued a statement to Al-Muqattam, published the following day, in which he announced he was willing to head a new government if asked. That Zaghlul chose this newspaper in particular as his forum was because its owner, Faris Nimr, was known to be on close terms with the British high commissioner and would, therefore, speedily inform Lloyd of his decision. Indeed, according to the British archives of this period, that is exactly what happened. After having taken down the nationalist leader's statement, Nimr proceeded directly to Qasr El-Dubara Palace, the seat of the British high commissioner.
According to these same sources, later that evening, Yakan and Tharwat also hastened to the high commissioner's residence to notify Lloyd of Zaghlul's decision, unaware that he had already learned of it from Nimr. More significantly, they informed him that they would not take part in a government headed by Zaghlul should the British refuse to support it.
Meanwhile, in Abdin Palace, the king was rubbing his hands in glee. He knew Zaghlul's decision would upset the British and he had also learned that Yakan, immediately after his meeting with Lloyd, had gone to Zaghlul to inform him that Lloyd had urged him to form a government and that he had agreed. The ball was now in the British court.
Lloyd's initial gambit was to have the Reuters representative call on Zaghlul to offer a face-saving proposal. Should Zaghlul be called upon to form a government, he would turn down the offer and announce this to the official Gazette. The suggestion was "childish scheming," Zaghlul scoffed.
The British were not about to be brushed aside so easily, and mounted a campaign against Zaghlul in the British press. "All evidence suggests that Zaghlul is devoid of all ability to see reality because of his lust for glory," wrote the Daily Telegraph, which went on to suggest that Zaghlul's position would delay the reopening of parliament and bring the country to the brink of civil strife. It then cautioned that the only way out of this situation would be "to repeal the declaration of 28 February and reimpose a temporary protectorate so as to provide breathing space in which to reach a settlement."
No less scathing was the Daily News, whose correspondent in Cairo had interviewed Zaghlul three weeks earlier at the time the Wafd leader had announced his decision to turn down the job of prime minister. On this occasion, the correspondent remarked that Zaghlul was "a captivating orator with the power to arouse deep emotions in his audience. However, this talent has its limits and leads to all sorts of contradictory statements, making it difficult to treat him like a responsible statesman." The Daily Mail charged that Zaghlul was the implacable enemy of British influence and that "his party has close connections with murderers and those who commit acts of terror in Egypt." It continued, "Zaghlul's foremost aim is to kick the British out of Egypt and it is our duty to let him know that we have no intention of leaving Egypt under any circumstances!"
The British high commissioner sent Zaghlul an official representative, Walter Smart, his adviser on Oriental affairs, who informed the nationalist leader that Lord Lloyd wanted to meet him on the evening of the following day, 30 May.
Prior to the meeting, the high commissioner went to Abdin Palace where he had a brief meeting with King Fouad and argued that one of the main reasons Zaghlul was now pressing to become prime minister was the articles in La Liberté and Al-Ittihad which played upon anti-British sentiment. It was well-known that these two newspapers received financial and moral backing from the palace. Fouad claimed he bore no responsibility for what the newspapers published. Lloyd agreed but reminded the king that three weeks earlier he had brought up a similar protest with the head of the Royal Cabinet, after which he observed a distinct change in the newspapers' editorial policies. The high commissioner then concluded the meeting by expressing his confidence that the king would do his utmost to curb any further excesses.
Lloyd also tried to undermine the advantage Zaghlul gained from the Criminal Court's recent ruling on Maher and El-Nuqrashi. From the outset, of course, the British were infuriated by the ruling. On the occasion, the Times commented that while the Egyptian people and the Wafd in particular had rejoiced at the acquittal of the two Wafd leaders, "high judiciary circles greeted it with surprise and consternation, for after the testimony that was given, the ruling can only be considered an abuse of judicial authority." The article continued, "Everywhere one hears the same opinion, that the ruling was issued by a majority of the tribunal, which is to say the two Egyptian judges. As for the British judge, he was opposed to the acquittal, which has been described as a purely political ruling." The British magistrate, Kershaw, resigned in protest, perhaps at the urging of the high commissioner's office.
Al-Ahram voiced its opinion on this stratagem the following day under the headline, "How are the British using Kershaw's resignation? A semi-official communiqué." The article said that Lloyd submitted a memorandum to the Egyptian government stating that the British government, having learned of Kershaw's resignation and in view of the considerable expertise Kershaw had acquired in the service of the Egyptian courts, refused to accept the court's ruling "as proof that the defendants are innocent."
After having laid the groundwork, Lloyd met Zaghlul. As no details of what transpired were released to the public, the only available sources are Zaghlul's memoirs and the confidential report that Lloyd dispatched to his superiors in London that evening.
In his account, Zaghlul relates that Lloyd opened the meeting by warning him about the anger the national leader had stirred up in British and French public opinion and among the foreign communities in Egypt over his change of heart regarding the premiership. When Zaghlul did not immediately answer, Lloyd charged, "You're fighting Britain as you did once before." Zaghlul adamantly denied the allegation. The two men failed to reach an understanding and did not part on the most cordial of terms. Before Zaghlul left, Lloyd cautioned him against staging any demonstrations, to which the Wafd leader responded that he was unable to prevent "demonstrations of joy."
Lloyd's account differed little from that of Zaghlul's. He said that their meeting lasted nearly two hours and that Zaghlul was drunk with the electoral victory and the court's ruling. Lloyd wrote, "All who have seen him lately seem to agree that he is suffering from an acute attack of megalomania."
As we learn from Zaghlul's memoirs, the high commissioner feared that the nationalist leader would resort to that familiar weapon he had used so many times before: mobilising the masses. He thus sent a message to London, requesting that a warship be sent to the harbour in Alexandria which he predicted would be the scene of the greatest turmoil. The authorities in London agreed and soon the Resolution was steaming towards the northern Egyptian coast. The news featured in the headlines of Egypt's major newspapers, as though to warn Zaghlul.
It only remained for Lloyd to deliver an ultimatum to Zaghlul. On 2 June, the representative of the British crown and the leader of the majority parliamentary body met again and Lloyd read out the following missive from the British Foreign Office:
"The British government cannot possibly be confident of the future in light of what occurred during your previous administration... Nor can it ignore the danger to which its subjects and the subjects of other nations in the country, not to mention the very security of Egypt, would be exposed to, for we believe that you are pursuing the same course that led to the catastrophe of 1924." Lloyd was referring to the assassination of Sir Lee and the first British ultimatum that led to the downfall of Zaghlul's government in November that year.
Under the combined pressure of the latest British ultimatum and the prospects of a new wave of British repression should he decide not to comply, Zaghlul backed down. Nevertheless, all parties recognised the need for a face-saving formula. The solution, as we saw, played itself out in the dramatic parliamentary assembly meeting in the Continental Hotel in June, a public relations performance that sealed the compromise that had been worked out beforehand.
Ultimately Zaghlul did have a say in the formation of the new government. Yakan would head a government consisting of nine Wafdist and three Liberal Constitutionalist ministers. As Al-Ahram put it in its editorial on 10 June, the next government was to be "a Wafd structure with a Liberal Constitutionalist façade."
For Saad Zaghlul, the Continental Hotel was the setting that concluded the story of his last stand. If he had suffered many setbacks in his tumultuous career, from this battle it could be said that he emerged mortally wounded, for just over a year later the nationalist leader died.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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