|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 June 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (394)
Whether village mayors and elders should be elected by the people or appointed by the government -- at first glance, a relatively minor affair -- was, in fact, debated in the highest echelons of state in Egypt in 1926. Proposals submitted to parliament urged that the mayors be popularly elected and a bill to this effect was drafted. But the bill's detractors, who included King Fouad and the British occupation authorities, tried mightily to prevent it from being put to a parliamentary vote. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* chronicles the bill's journey from its conception to the doorsteps of parliament
Mayoral prestigeOn 22 June 1926, Abdel-Latif Saudi, the parliamentary representative from Fayoum, appealed to the Chamber of Deputies to pass a new law for the election of village mayors and elders to replace the 1895 royal decree that governed the selection of these officials. In Saudi's opinion, the decree was inconsistent with "the democratic systems in the country which requires that villagers have the right to elect the individual who represents them and the national executive authority."
Less than a week later, the Fayoum deputy refined his appeal. Registered voters should have the right to elect their village mayors, he said. The advantage of this system was that it would turn villages into tangible political entities "by introducing what is termed 'l'esprit de la commune' (the communal spirit), a powerful concept of modern democratic theory, while safeguarding the character of the Egyptian village."
Then, on 5 July 1926, two Wafd Party deputies, Fakhri Abdel-Nur, the representative of Girga, and Ahmed Ramzi of Temay Al-Amdid, submitted a proposal to parliament based on Saudi's recommendation, an action that in a matter of days would be the opening salvo in a battle that engaged all the major players in the Egyptian political arena at the time: the Wafd Party, which controlled the vast majority of the parliament and held the lion's share of seats in the cabinet; King Fouad, eager for any opportunity to score points against the Wafd; and, most importantly, the British high commissioner in Cairo.
The proposal to change the system of appointing village mayors and elders opened with the claim that the 1895 decree had come under attack in the press for being the brainchild of Lord Cromer, the British high commissioner at the time the edict was issued. Cromer believed that the key to safeguarding the British occupation lay not in the city, the location of the noisy educated malcontents, but in the tranquil countryside where the bulk of the Egyptian population lived. He, therefore, put all his energy behind ensuring that village chiefs would be firmly under the thumb of the Ministry of Interior, which the British controlled. Hence, the notorious royal decree.
In the 30-year period between the promulgation of the 1895 decree and the Wafdist deputies' proposal, the political arena had changed considerably. British rule had evolved from direct occupation to a protectorate to nominal recognition of Egyptian independence. Khedive Tawfiq, who signed the decree, had been succeeded by Sultan Hussein Kamel who, in turn, was succeeded by King Fouad. Yet, as the authors of the proposal pointed out, the system for selecting rural village chiefs remained unchanged, despite the fact that "many other social institutions governing Egyptian life have made considerable progress."
In the interest of bringing that system up to date, Abdel-Nur and Ramzi argued that the popular election of village mayors would permit local affairs "to be governed by individuals who satisfy all, or the majority, of the people, in accordance with the proper principles of democracy." Such a system would uphold the dignity and prestige of the office of mayor, for it would "prevent the well-known despotic practice of administrative dismissals to which the government has routinely resorted for reasons that have no bearing upon the performance of duties and which, consequently, has long been conducive to corruption, rancour and scandal." Simultaneously, the proposed system would safeguard local autonomy, for "no one apart from local mayors or elders would be entitled to govern local affairs, even in a temporary capacity, thereby obviating the Ziwar government's tactic of controlling certain villages through police or army officers." Finally, in the opinion of its authors, the proposal offered an additional advantage, obliging provincial police commissioners to assist "the frequently overburdened" village chiefs in the fulfilment of their duties.
That a large segment of public opinion was deeply concerned over the plight of rural mayors was made explicit in Al- Ahram, which furnished some statistics regarding the injustices they suffered under the Ziwar government. According to a report in the newspaper, 173 mayors in the Delta and 31 mayors in Upper Egypt had been dismissed from their posts since the government assumed power in December 1924. In most cases, they were dismissed either because they supported the Wafd Party candidates in the 1925 and 1926 parliamentary elections or because they had failed to implement the electoral law the government had introduced shortly before it was toppled. In December 1925 Al-Ahram covered the prosecution of 36 mayors from the Tala district who had been dismissed for failing to implement the electoral law. The newspaper said, "The hearings were more a political tug-of-war than disciplinary action. The court was concerned more with establishing whether or not the defendants' failure to implement the 1925 electoral law was a misdemeanour over which it had jurisdiction. The defence took the line that the defendants were not guilty of any legal infraction on the grounds that the law in question was invalid since it had not been passed by a legislative authority."
The Wafd-led coalition government that succeeded the Ziwar government felt it imperative to resolve the problem of the village mayors. Al-Ahram remarked in an editorial on 17 June 1926 that the 36 mayors "were not dismissed for any fault of their own or for any legal offense but rather because of despotic bureaucratic measures taken because they were supporters of Saad Zaghlul, promoted the election of Zaghlul's followers to parliament and refused to be tools in the hands of the government." These were also the sentiments of the members of parliament who felt it their duty to seek immediate redress for the injustices perpetrated against the village mayors. Meanwhile the Ministry of Interior countered by setting up a commission to investigate the mayors' complaints on the grounds that "the complaints are too numerous for them all to be valid, as some mayors were dismissed for legitimate reasons but have resorted to the ruse that they were wronged because of their political beliefs as a means of refuting the charges that necessitated their dismissal."
On 17 July, Al-Ahram published the two contending points of view over the direct election of village mayors. Because election was consistent with the provisions of the constitution and the electoral law, its proponents had "strong arguments and legitimate justification" on their side. On the other hand, many, including people from the provinces, "claim that if this proposal is implemented as it stands it will ultimately lead to chaos, not only because it will erode the prestige of mayors but also because it will open this lofty position in the village to individuals incapable of performing the duties of office."
In its following edition, Al-Ahram allocated its editorial column to Fakhri Abdel-Nur who defended the proposal he co- authored. The parliamentary deputy reminded readers that two years earlier he had made a similar proposal and that it met with a very positive response in parliament and among the public. What made him re-submit the proposal was that in the course of becoming more familiar with rural affairs he had personally seen the consequences of the continued implementation of the 1895 decree. He then argued that it was not the direct election of mayors that would bring chaos but rather placing the power of mayoral appointments in the hands of a select few who would use this power "as a means to acquire personal gains, settle scores, bestow favours and eliminate adversaries."
Al-Ahram also allocated space to opponents to the popular election of mayors. It is interesting to note that so charged was the climate over this issue that many of these were reluctant to sign their full names to their letters sent to the newspaper. It is likely that they feared the consequences of running against the overwhelming tide of opinion in favour of the idea, particularly because many of them were palace officials or members of the minority Liberal Constitutionalist Party who felt support for their party would erode if mayors were elected by popular vote.
One opponent, "A S from Quweisna," suggested an independent committee be created under the Ministry of Interior as an alternative solution. The function of this committee would be to "ensure that justice prevails" by preventing the intervention of parliamentary deputies in the mayoral selection process. In his opinion the popular election of mayors would diminish the prestige of their office which would become subjected to partisan whims and interests.
A second anonymous writer objected to certain provisions in the proposal. For example, he took exception to the stipulated five-year term of office which he felt would be a source of friction in the village. Once a mayor's term has ended, he wrote, "every family will want to nominate their own personal leader, while the less prominent families and most villagers in general will run the risk of retribution from those families whose candidates they refuse to support. The families that lose in the elections will seek revenge against those who failed to vote for their leaders." If such a situation threatened violence within a single village, "imagine the state the country will be in should every village hold mayoral elections every five years."
A third reader, calling himself "a peasant," made a surprising suggestion: abolish the office of mayor entirely and create instead a village board of directors consisting of local elders and a head who would have any title other than that of mayor. This solution, he argued, would ease the intense competition over the office, thereby "reducing intrigue, animosity and discord while placating diverse and rival family allegiances."
Despite the criticism, the parliamentary Committee for Domestic Affairs pressed ahead with drafting a bill based on the proposal of MPs Abdel-Nur and Ramzi. Published in Al- Ahram of 27 August, the bill consisted of three sections: the election of mayors, the jurisdiction and duties of these officials and disciplinary action, suspension and dismissal.
Under the first section, voters in the countryside had the right to elect mayors of villages and directorate or district capitals by direct, secret ballot. The term of office was seven years and "renewable through direct elections." To qualify, candidates had to be registered voters, at least 25 years old, hold title to property and, if retired, be a recipient of a monthly pension of at least LE10. An interesting exception was made to the sons of mayors whose minimum age requirement was 21.
The most important provision of the second section stipulated that the function of the mayors "was to implement all laws, regulations, edicts and all orders and instructions issued by every ministry, government authority or a competent official." Another mayoral duty was to prevent assaults against government property and public utilities, to ensure the upkeep of all transport and communications facilities, from roads and railroads to telegraph, telephone and postal services. Above all, they were responsible for "safeguarding public security, preventing crime and apprehending criminals." Finally, local elders, the local chief of police and all other law enforcement officers would assist mayors in the performance of their duties.
Just as the new bill seemed on the brink of being put to parliamentary vote, its opponents -- and they were many -- stepped up their campaign to prevent its passage. Perhaps the most formidable obstacle was the office of the British high commissioner. On 6 August, Henderson, the chargé d'affaires of this office, issued a lengthy memorandum on the bill, a document from which it was easy to discern that the British authorities had been closely monitoring developments in the Chamber of Deputies and had carefully devised their counter strategy. Whereas in 1895 the British pushed for the appointment decree ostensibly in order to ensure rural stability, this time their pretext for intervening in Egypt's legislative process was to prevent violations of the 1922 Declaration of 28 February that stipulated that the British reserved the right to protect foreigners in Egypt. Accordingly, the British held that were mayors to be elected by popular vote, political considerations would prevail over the executive authority, and thus could generate a situation that would jeopardise the lives of foreigners residing in the provinces.
According to this memorandum, senior officials in the Ministry of Interior and in the provinces were also apprehensive of the passage of the new bill because it would place directorate authorities in the unenviable position of having to deal with diverse political personalities in villages instead of ordinary government functionaries. These individuals, moreover, would be highly ambitious and eager to capitalise on their electoral success in order to run for parliament. With this came the prospect of a further politicisation of this rural office in view of the considerable likelihood that incumbents would use their position to rally local support for their parliamentary candidacies.
Evidently, the British high commissioner's office had eyes and ears everywhere for Henderson had also learned that Saad Zaghlul had instructed the parliament's Committee of Internal Affairs to finish drafting the bill as soon as possible so as to bring it to a vote. The chargé d'affaires moved quickly in order to pre-empt this. His first step was to meet Prime Minister Adli Yakan who also served as minister of interior and who expressed his hope that a compromise would be reached with the Chamber of Deputies to stop a vote on the bill. The high commissioner's informants also told him that the prime minister had met King Fouad who was equally perturbed over the effect the new law would have on rural administration and agreed with Yakan that the bill must be stopped. Following this meeting Yakan headed straight to Dubara Palace where, after lengthy consultations, he and Henderson agreed to seek a compromise with parliament.
The solution they had in mind was that in exchange for not bringing the bill to a vote in parliament the current government would resolve the outstanding problems related to the Ziwar government's politically-motivated replacement of rural mayors. A complicating factor was that the committee formed by the Yakan government to consider such cases consisted of four Ministry of Interior officials well-known for their antagonism to the Wafd.
As was often the custom of the British occupation authorities when they wanted to deliver an indirect message to Zaghlul they resorted to the London Times, with its close connections to Foreign Office circles and its tendency to voice the British government's point of view. Thus, on 27 August, under the headline "Bill on Village Mayors and Elders," the Times correspondent in Cairo remarked that the bill being drawn up by the parliament's Internal Affairs Committee "would establish a new principle for all aspects of agrarian life in Egypt by creating a rift in the entire administrative system." He continues, "Until now, it had been deemed necessary for village chiefs to remain completely under the control of provincial directors, whose powers over mayors guilty of poor conduct or negligence of duty are considerable indeed. The new law would totally strip the directors of these powers rendering them incapable of taking any action against mayors accused of wrongdoing apart from suspending them temporarily." The Times correspondent went on to list what he perceived to be the dangers of the new law: it would place the selection of village chiefs in the hands of the majority party and facilitate recourse to illegitimate methods of political pressure; and it would reduce the levels of protection that foreign expatriates residing throughout the countryside currently enjoyed.
The correspondent concluded that the bill was "further proof of something that has manifested itself repeatedly in the actions of the Egyptian parliament: the inability to distinguish between the legislative and executive branches of government." He continues: "This tendency to promote the parliament as the country's governing authority has done considerable harm to the provinces as it has led the people there to believe that their parliamentary deputies are the true representatives of government and that provincial executives are no more than puppets." Armed with the support of the palace and the high commissioner's office, not to mention what was clearly the position of London, Yakan met Zaghlul to convince him of the dangers of pushing the bill through parliament without consulting with the government. Yakan took the occasion to remind the Wafd Party leader of the agreement they had struck when forming the cabinet that succeeded the Ziwar government, that the Chamber of Deputies would not obstruct government policy.
Zaghlul and other Wafd leaders were quick to read the signs and it was not long before the two sides reached a compromise. The bill was temporarily shelved as the fate of some 200 mayors who had been ousted under the Ziwar government was debated. The task of determining the status of these mayors was assigned to Kenneth Boyd, the oriental affairs adviser to the high commissioner's office. Boyd classified the dismissed mayors into those who had already been replaced and those who had not. With regard to the latter category, he determined that 29 had been dismissed for political reasons. These, along with 10 others recommended by the Minister of Interior, were to be reinstated. As for those who had been replaced, Boyd found that 58 had been dismissed for political reasons and would be eligible for reinstatement but only on the basis of the results of local village elections in which they would run against the appointees who had replaced them along with other candidates.
On 2 September Al-Ahram reported that the bill for the election of village mayors was sent back to the Domestic Affairs Committee after it had found that provisions regarding its implementation needed amendments. Anyone familiar with the dealings that had taken place behind the scenes realised this meant the bill had been deferred indefinitely or, as documents in the British Foreign Office archives show, shelved, thus bringing to a close one of the lesser-known battles in Egyptian history.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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