|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
30 August - 5 September 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (405)
Post World War I Egyptian politics was dominated by the nationalist struggle for independence from British occupation, including the seemingly petty battles that befell the municipality of Alexandria in 1926. Many chapters of the municipal machinations were not made public at the time. However, in this week's Diwan, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * reads between the lines of articles which appeared on the pages of Al-Ahram at the time and fills the gaps with now de-classified British Foreign Office documents which reveal a lot of what went on behind the scenes
Name: the Municipality of Alexandria, the elder sister of all Egyptian municipalities.
From the top: Lloyd, Ziwar, the French gardens in Orabi Square in Alexandria in the early 1900's, Sherif Pasha Street, also in Alex, and Yakan
Date of birth: 5 January 1890.
Place of birth: Egypt's famous Mediterranean port and second capital city.
Identifying characteristics: Of indigenous conception yet including foreign features. Created in accordance with a royal decree, the "municipal commission" of Alexandria consisted of 28 members. Several of these were permanent by virtue of their office: the governor of Alexandria, the public prosecutor of the Mixed Court of Appeals, the chief health inspector of Alexandria and the chief inspector of public works. Eight were government appointees. Another six were elected by public ballot, in which voter eligibility required a minimum age of 25 and title to a lease on residential premises with a rent valued at no less than LE75 per annum. An additional three members were elected by export merchants, another three by import merchants and, finally, two were elected by property owners in Alexandria and its suburbs.
The royal decree also included the following stipulation: "No more than three members of the same nationality may be elected to the board, whether Egyptian or otherwise." This provision set the seal on the European character of the municipality. At least three of the permanent members, above all the public prosecutor of the Mixed Court of Appeals, were certain not to be Egyptian. The government appointees representing the Ministry of Interior, itself controlled by a British adviser, would have been of indubitably Anglo-Saxon stock. The property restriction on eligibility was certain to restrict the chances of many Egyptian candidates since LE75 was a hefty sum to pay for rent in those days. Finally, the overwhelming majority of import and export merchants were Europeans.
Alexandria had long been reputed for its cosmopolitan composition. Of the foreign communities the Greeks predominated in number, not surprisingly in view of the ancient Hellenic stamp imprinted on the port city since the descendants of Alexander the Great made it the capital of the Ptolemaic empire. Second largest in size was the Italian community, which also had an age-long presence in Alexandria, and Egypt in general, as did the French, by virtue of its history of extensive trading relations throughout the Mediterranean, in which Alexandria towered above other port cities as a strategic commercial hub. Last in numbers but first in economic and political influence, following their occupation of Egypt, came the British. These, then, were the nationalities that largely determined the face of Alexandria's first municipal council.
However, as the nascent municipality passed through infancy and entered the first phases of adulthood, its face changed with the changing face of the city. Successive waves of rural to urban migration contributed to increasing the population from 300,000 in 1897 to 444,000 in 1917, creating an overwhelming Egyptian majority in the port city. Alexandria also became one of the most important seats of the burgeoning national independence movement. In December 1907, Mustafa Kamel chose Alexandria's Zizinya Theatre to deliver his famous speech in which he announced the creation of the National Party. When nationalist fervour reached its zenith in the 1919 Revolution, Alexandria witnessed a level of intensity and violence in the confrontations between protesters and security forces unrivalled by the events in Cairo. Then, too, the demographic composition of Alexandria underwent further changes with the departure of large segments of its European population, firstly during World War I and later following the British Declaration of 28 February 1922 which granted nominal independence to Egypt.
Among the first to note, undoubtedly with some consternation, the effect these changes had on the composition of the Alexandrian municipality in the early 1920s was the British high commissioner. Not only had an Egyptian succeeded the British director-general of the board in 1923, but the Saad Zaghlul government, elected under the new constitution the following year, declared that henceforth all the government appointees in the municipality would be Egyptian. To British officials, this signalled a breach of the unwritten agreement that the majority of the members of the municipality would be expatriates. That, on top of this, three of the elected board members were also Egyptian called for further hand-wringing in the high commissioner's office, particularly as they were all of the Zaghlul-led Wafd Party.
Apprehensive over the politicisation of Alexandria's venerable municipal board, British authorities moved to counter this trend, taking advantage of the relatively weak Ziwar government (1924-26) to accomplish their objectives. The "battle over the municipality" that began in January 1926 and only ended as that year drew to a close, forms a little-known chapter in Egyptian history. Indeed, that such a "battle" took place at all only came to light with documented evidence after confidential British archives of the period became available. Which is not to say that contemporary Egyptians were not suspicious that machinations were afoot, as we learn from certain pointers in Al-Ahram, as well as from the reactions of its readers to the developments that affected the shape of Alexandria's municipal board.
Al-Ahram readers were first alerted to trouble on 13 January 1926 when the newspaper announced that the Alexandrian municipal board had just been dismissed and replaced by a temporary board. It would have struck readers immediately that more than half of the appointees on the new board were foreigners -- "six Europeans and five nationals," the paper noted. Moreover, among the nationals was a foreigner who had adopted Egyptian nationality, which effectively made the ratio seven to four.
Monsieur Van den Bush, the deputy director of the former board and a member of the new one, told the press that the dissolution of the old board had been expected. Chaos was rife in the municipal departments because of the "pernicious effects of the meddling of politics in administrative affairs," he explained. Al-Ahram, of course, was suspicious. Firstly, it questioned the appointment of a Briton as the temporary board's director-general. Secondly, it wondered what political considerations were behind the change.
The answers to the newspaper's questions appeared in a letter, also dated 13 January, from the British high commissioner to the Foreign Office. George Lloyd related that circumstances in the former municipality were such that he felt compelled to consult with the prime minister and the representatives of France, Italy and Greece over the need to suspend the board for a period of six months, in accordance with the provisions of Article 26 of the law establishing the municipality. Lloyd then sent a delegate to Alexandria to meet with representatives of the foreign communities there. They, too, welcomed the idea of creating a new municipal board consisting of a majority of carefully selected European members. Mr Murray, head of Egyptian affairs in the Foreign Office, added an explanatory note. Before Saad Zaghlul became prime minister, there was a general understanding that the Alexandrian municipality would have an international character. For this reason, the Foreign Office had instructed Lloyd to take the necessary measures to ensure a foreign majority in that body, regardless of the future attitudes of Egyptians. The steps the high commissioner recommended were, therefore, correct, Murray concluded.
Although it initially appeared that Lloyd's engineering had rescued the European face of the municipality, subsequent events frustrated his plans. Shortly after coming to power, the Ziwar government dismissed the director-general of the municipal board, an Egyptian who had been appointed to that position under the government of Saad Zaghlul. The vacant post become the subject of dispute between the Egyptian and European members of the board. The latter, supported by the Ziwar government and the British high commissioner, pushed for a British replacement and eventually succeeded in imposing their candidate, a certain Mr Costworth. This choice promptly triggered the resignation of four Egyptian members of the board.
The government and the British were thus forced to annul the temporary board and hold elections for a new one. In a communication to London, Lloyd reported that although a number of "respectable" Europeans stood for the new positions, voters reinstated the members of the board that had been dismissed by the government. "The Wafd put its weight behind the elections and achieved an overwhelming success," he grumbled.
The new municipal board made its political allegiances felt in its first meetings when it give its immediate ascent to the government's nominee for director-general, Ahmed Sadiq. Such a non-compliant board could not be tolerated. In March 1925, the Ziwar government annulled the recently elected parliament just 10 hours after its inaugural session because of its overwhelmingly Wafdist character. And just over a year later, in May 1926, the government took the same step and for the same reasons against the newly-elected Alexandrian municipal board, 48 hours after its first session. A royal edict was then issued placing the management of municipal affairs in the hands of the governor of Alexandria and Mr Costworth pending new elections in November.
In response to this heavy-handedness, the members of the dissolved board issued a communiqué "to the voters of Alexandria," in which they protested the pretexts the government used to justify its action. They had not rejected the government's candidate for director-general, they wrote, but rather had "simply deferred our decision in order to better appraise ourselves on the issue... This deferral cannot be construed to jeopardise the public welfare." The communiqué continued: "The government seeks to blame us for a painful situation that existed before the recent elections, although it, in fact, is solely responsible for this situation because it dragged its feet on the pleas of successive municipal boards to appoint a director-general. The government's refusal to acknowledge the rights of the representatives in whom you have placed your confidence forces us to abandon lodging our protest with the government. Therefore, it is to you, dear voters, forever keen to protect the interests of your city, to whom we must send our protest."
Charged with a particularly onerous task under these circumstances, Costworth formed a committee of senior municipal officials to help him out. Ironically, one of the committee members -- Saleh Hamdi Bek, director of the Department of Health -- chose this unsteady period to write a lengthy letter to Al-Ahram on "the poor sanitary conditions in Alexandria." The majority of housing in Alexandria, he complains, consists of wooden huts with no light, poor ventilation and no sources of clean water, conditions which "lead to typhoid epidemics every year." The fish market lacked fresh water basins forcing merchants to wash their catch in the Mariout Lake which is contaminated by the refuse from the railways. "The same applies to vegetables, which are fertilised with manure." He goes on to ask why the street sweeping authority did not clean these markets and the surrounding streets.
Hamdi Bek's letter, in effect, was a condemnation of the performance of the Alexandrian municipality since its inception. Implicitly, he charged that because of its predominantly European composition, the municipality focused all its energies on the modern, foreign quarters of the city and neglected the popular, or "native" quarters, as they were referred to at the time.
In June, national parliamentary elections were held, bringing into power a Wafd-Liberal Constitutionalist Party coalition under Prime Minister Adli Yakan Pasha. The new government brought the issue of the Alexandrian municipality to the fore again, as revealed by two news items in Al-Ahram. The first of these said: "A group of Egyptian writers in Alexandria form a committee to defend the interests of the city and to monitor the activities of the municipality. The committee members elected as their chairman Riyad Bek, representative of the Customs Department in parliament." The second item reported that Van den Bush had resigned as a municipal board member and would not stand for re-election to a new board.
What would have piqued readers' interest further was the announcement that the foreign members of the municipal board had requested an increase in their salaries in the form of a living-abroad allowance. "Is this allowance being requested by individuals who have been residents in Alexandria for endless years, who have adopted the city as their home, acquired property and numerous possessions there, participated in the municipal elections and no longer consider moving to another country?" asked Al-Ahram. "This demand was obviously formulated with the Ziwar government, not to the new constitutional government, in mind."
The Adli Yakan government revived hopes that the elected municipality annulled by the Ziwar government could be reinstated. As parliamentary deputies took up this cause, they found support among many Alexandrian citizens who "believe that the government could simply reverse the dissolution edict with another edict." Al-Ahram goes on to report, "Prime Minister Adli [Yakan] Pasha has promised to undertake all necessary measures to satisfy the people of Alexandria. But after studying the question from a legal standpoint, it learned that technically the annulled board no longer existed and could, therefore, not be revived since it is impossible to revive something non-existent. Thus, hopes for reinstating that body collapsed in one go." As a conciliatory gesture, the Yakan government formed a temporary committee consisting of six foreigners and five Egyptians to assist the governor of Alexandria in the administration of the city. Simultaneously, it appointed Ahmed Sadiq as the director-general of the municipality, thereby relieving Costworth of his heavy burden.
The compromise succeeded in calming down the situation somewhat in Alexandria. However, as Egyptians there awaited the municipal elections scheduled for late November, the British were not about to leave matters to chance. Later that summer, Lloyd met with the diplomatic representatives of the nations with significant expatriate populations in Alexandria in order to persuade them of the need to introduce "radical" amendments into the royal decree of 1890. He succeeded in securing their agreement to a British committee that would meet in the high commissioner's residence in order to draft the amendments which, he argued, would be justifiable in accordance with the provision in the Declaration of 28 February 1922 that reserved to the British the right to protect the interests of minorities and foreigners in Egypt.
On 19 September, the committee completed its task. The amendments provided, firstly, that eight of the 14 appointees on the municipal board would be foreigners who would be selected from a list prepared by the diplomatic representatives of Great Britain, France, Italy and Greece. They provided, secondly, that the public prosecutor of the Mixed Court of Appeals, whose position automatically rendered him a municipal board member, would be a foreign expatriate and that the chief health inspector would be an Egyptian. The formula, Lloyd was certain, would ensure a predominantly European municipal board for years to come.
Following the advice of the British Foreign Office, the charge d'affaires of the British high commissioner in Cairo submitted the proposed amendments to Prime Minister Yakan informally, but indicated that London was prepared to bring the amendments to the attention of the other nations concerned. Yakan responded that they would look into the matter quickly together with the director-general of the municipal board and that there would be no need, therefore, to involve other nations. Initially, the British acceded to this wish. However, following a flurry of exchanges between the high commissioner's office in Cairo and the Foreign Office in London, British officials retracted on this position. Clearly they realised that it would be difficult for the Yakan government, or any Egyptian government for that matter, to officially sanction a European majority on the Alexandrian municipal board. Therefore, London instructed its representatives in Paris, Rome and Athens to alert those governments to the deteriorating state of the Alexandrian municipality so that they would, in turn, instruct their representatives in Cairo to consult with British officials there in order to adopt a united stance on the issue.
As a result of this manoeuvre, the following weeks brought a tug-of-war between the Yakan government, on the one hand, and the high commissioner, supported by the representatives of France, Italy and Greece, on the other. While the Egyptian government expressed its willingness to adopt certain "arrangements" to ensure a majority of those nations' subjects on the municipal board, Lloyd remained adamant over introducing the amendments to the 1890 decree. Ultimately, however, it dawned on the British official that the Egyptian prime minister's proposal was more realistic. The amendments to the law of the municipality would have to be passed through the predominantly Wafdist parliament, clearly an impossibility.
It was thus agreed to implement Adli Yakan's solution. The "arrangement" was to elect six members to the municipal board in elections set for 21 November, towards which end the Alexandrian electorate was divided into several polling districts. It should be remembered, incidentally, that there were only 7,719 voters registered for the municipal elections in spite of the fact that the population of Alexandria at the time stood at about half a million.
The decree also stipulated the times in which the various municipal elections representing Alexandrian importers, exporters and property holders would be held, the location and opening and closing times of the polling stations.
The elections took place as scheduled, but voter turnout was a disaster. Al-Ahram reports: "Although there are 7,719 registered voters, only 1,587 showed up, which is to say a fifth of the total electorate. In order to win, a candidate needed to secure 790 votes." The newspaper added that all the candidates on the list nominated by the Wafd together with the Greek community came out victorious. The list included three foreigners, two Egyptians and a Syrian, all of whom, according to Al-Ahram's reporter in Alexandria, were "highly qualified and fully competent." The reporter, however, expressed his regrets over the failure of one candidate, Antoun Arqash, who ran as an independent. "Yet it can not be said that public opinion did not favour him because public opinion is not made up of 1,587 people in a city of half a million. There is no doubt that all Alexandrians regret that their city is to be deprived of the services of this sincerely dedicated man who has served the public for 17 successive years."
If voter turnout was low, certain forces made their presence felt more than others. The companies that held the monopolies on water and transportation were also powerful, controlling as they did a large number of voters. Nevertheless, the Wafd Party proved more formidable, as the electoral results showed. But the newspaper went on to remark that the Wafd, along with the Greek community, the largest of the foreign communities in Alexandria, allied themselves against Arqash, "despite him garnering 645 votes."
With the elections out of the way, it only remained that the other seats on the board be filled through government appointments, a task that was performed in accordance with the unofficial arrangement between Yakan and the British high commissioner's office. The upshot was that Egypt's first municipal board retained its European face for yet another generation while a little-known chapter in the history of that institution drew to a close.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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