|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (418)
For the first time in modern Egyptian history, the government was forced to step down after receiving a vote of no confidence from parliament. After having been in power for only 10 months, the government took the decision on 18 April 1927. The move shocked deputies and the general public alike and was covered extensively in Al-Ahram. The crisis began with deliberations on the national budget and charges that the government was not serious in its commitment to many of the reform projects it had promised to institute when it came to power. The government, led by Prime Minister Adli Yakan, also faced pressure from within -- Yakan had to steer a majority Wafdist government even though he was of the Liberal Constitutionalists -- and from Britain, which had several complaints about the government. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* writes on this unprecedented event in Egyptian politics/
During the 125-year history of the Egyptian cabinet there was only one occasion in which parliament withdrew its confidence from the elected government. This unique event came to pass on the evening of 18 April 1927 when Prime Minister Adli Yakan Pasha delivered the following statement to the Chamber of Deputies:
"During discussion of the report of the budgetary committee, the government heard many criticisms levelled by the honourable members of this chamber. These criticisms were followed by the decision taken during this parliamentary session. The government perceives in this decision and in the substance of the criticisms allegations that compel it, in the interests of preserving its dignity, to step down from office."
Those present in the chamber were stunned, as was the public upon hearing the news. Al-Ahram, which normally kept close watch over what took place under the parliamentary dome, was more assiduous than usual covering in detail this extraordinary event.
As Yakan's statement suggests, the crisis began in the course of parliament's deliberations over the 1927-28 budgetary bill. At one point, deputy Abdel-Hamid Abdel-Haq rose to address the house, noting that while the government had LE18 million deposited with the National Bank, its account with the Misr Bank stood at a little over LE100,000. The majority of the shares of the National Bank were British-owned. The parliamentary deputy then remarked, "It is shocking that such an enormous sum can be deposited with the National Bank, enabling it to use the money to expand its operations while the profits flow abroad. Meanwhile, Misr Bank, whose capital assets are entirely Egyptian and whose profits accrue to the Egyptian people, does not receive such support, although there is nothing whatsoever to prevent us from lending it such support." Abdel-Haq went on to appeal to his fellow parliamentary members to assist Misr Bank, not only because it was a truly national bank, but also "because with every economic crisis that has struck the country, it has clearly demonstrated that it is the only bank to provide noble and invaluable services to help during difficult times."
Next to speak was deputy Ahmed Ramzi who criticised the size of the national reserve, which stood at LE34 million. He charged that the enormous reserve could only have accumulated because it was not being tapped towards essential development reforms. He pointed to agrarian reforms in particular. "In most parts of Egypt the people are crying out because irrigation water does not reach their land, not to mention that irrigation is not equitably distributed," Ramzi said.
MP William Makram Ebeid reiterated the accusation in stronger terms. "This reserve is not an indication of the country's wealth. On the contrary, it is an indication of our social and economic poverty. It is proof that the wheel of reform is turning far too slowly," Ebeid said. He went on to charge that the government was not serious in its commitment to many of the reform projects it had promised to institute when coming to power.
One might have thought these criticisms reflected personal opinions rather than the overwhelming view of the Chamber until the following development occurred. Al-Ahram related to its readers the minutes of the crucial parliamentary meeting:
Chairman: "Fifteen members have submitted a recommendation which states, 'Parliament expresses its gratitude to the current government for the assistance it has offered, since coming to power, to Misr Bank, and requests that it sustain and diversify this support by entrusting it with certain activities that would be in the interests of both the government and the bank. Such activities would include the purchasing of shares, using government assets deposited with it to expand its operations, notably in extending loans to develop the cotton industry, and depositing in it the proceeds from the awkaf (religious endowments) foundations."
Abdel-Salam Fahmi Goma'a: "I suggest this proposal be rejected because it opens with an expression of gratitude to the government. I see no reason to thank the government for implementing a parliamentary decision, especially in view of the fact that we have criticised it and will go on criticising it during the review of the budgetary bill for its failure to implement some parliamentary decisions. How can we reconcile thanking it today and criticising it tomorrow?" (applause).
Chairman: "Those in favour of passing the proposal as it stands for submission to the committee please rise." (Only a few members stand up).
Chairman: "Those opposed please rise." (The majority stand up).
Chairman: "The proposal has been rejected."
Following the vote parliament went into a short recess. It was 7.10 pm. It reconvened just over two hours later, at 9.30. During that brief interval Prime Minister Yakan had met with Chairman Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha, who had voiced his displeasure at what transpired earlier that day. Thus, when the session resumed Al- Ahram reported the following exchanges:
Chairman: "It appears that the government is disturbed by what took place before the break, which is that the chamber rejected the proposal that contained an expression of gratitude to the government along with other requests pertaining to Misr Bank. Evidently, it interprets this rejection as a vote of no confidence. However, I do not believe for a moment that this thought had occurred to the members of this house. What I understood is that the aforementioned proposal was excessive, for which reason the chamber decided not to adopt it and to be content with the specific proposals it had decided to refer to the Finance Committee. Does anyone disagree with what I have just said?"
Several parliament members shout: "We all agree!"
Abdel-Salam Fahmi Goma'a: "When I spoke out earlier against the afore-mentioned proposal, a no-confidence vote was the furthest thing from my mind, for on every possible occasion we have declared our fullest confidence in the government."
Tarraf Ali Effendi: "In some European parliaments it is customary that if a government wants a proposal or bill of law to pass in parliament, it will link it to a vote of confidence, whereby should the opinion of parliament go against that of the government, that opinion would be taken as a withdrawal of confidence. But here, the government did nothing of the sort. Rather, it attended the discussions and left without apprising parliament of its opinion."
Hassan Sabri Bek: "May I draw the attention of this distinguished assembly to the fact that there is a big difference between voicing confidence in the government and expressing gratitude to it. I may have confidence in the government but it would not be appropriate to thank it while being in the process of criticising it."
Chairman: "It is the case, then, that the prime minister and ministers have misinterpreted the parliament's decision. Henceforth, it is advisable not to link an expression of gratitude to any proposal so as to avoid any possible misunderstanding in the event that the proposal is not approved."
If members of parliament thought that these clarifications smoothed things over with the government, they were mistaken. One can only understand Yakan's determination to press ahead with his resignation on the grounds of a withdrawal of confidence in light of certain circumstances surrounding the formation of his government and its 10-month-old tenure.
The Yakan government was the first of three governments in what was termed the "Wafdist coalition era." In the 1926 parliamentary elections, the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalist parties formed a united front, winning 160 and 28 seats respectively, as opposed to less than 15 seats that went to other parties. Bowing to heavy British pressure, Wafd leader Saad Zaghlul declined the prime ministership, and it fell to Liberal Constitutionalist leader Yakan to form a government. As British High Commissioner Lord Lloyd put it, it was a Wafdist government with a Liberal Constitutionalist façade, since the majority of its members belonged to the former party.
Yakan had to steer this Wafdist-dominated cabinet through the turbulence created by an overwhelmingly Wafdist parliament, which included such firebrands as Makram Ebeid, Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi. Although Yakan often complained to Zaghlul, the latter was more often than not inclined to support his men.
The British high commissioner was equally frustrated with parliament. In a report to the Foreign Office he made several complaints covering the period from 9 July to 20 September 1927:
Senate submits to the Chamber of Deputies a bill of law permitting widespread carrying of arms by civilians;
Debate in parliament over debts owed to Egypt by Sudan, compelling the British charge d'affaires to go to parliament and tell Zaghlul to put an end to the discussion of that topic;
In discussions on budgetary allocations to Al-Azhar and other religious institutions, several deputies observed that these institutions fell under the administrative authority of the palace and that parliament, therefore, had no clear picture of how these allocations were spent. In response, Chief of the Royal Cabinet Tawfiq Nasim lodged a protest with the high commissioner's office, in the name of the king, against this parliamentary stand;
During consideration of budgetary allocations to the palace, parliament issued a resolution notifying the palace of the rapid increase in its expenditures over recent years and urged it to become a better model for its subjects in the art of economising;
As soon as Al-Nuqrashi was acquitted on charges of involvement in terrorist activities, he regained his seat in parliament, which had up to then been held by his rival in his constituency Mahmoud Riad;
On 15 September, parliament voted to place the budget of the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) under its supervision, again resulting in a palace protest.
Yakan was thus pressured from all sides, and no sooner did parliament resume after the summer recess than trouble began anew. The first problem he had to deal with was a Wafdist-sponsored bill of law introducing mayoral elections in the villages. Yakan, along with the palace and the high commissioner's office, were opposed to the bill, which they saw as a bid to promote Wafdist influence in the countryside and further enhance its prospects in the next parliamentary elections. After great efforts, Yakan succeeded in shelving the bill.
Close on the heels of this, a number of Wafdist parliamentary deputies held a meeting in one of their homes at which they decided to put before parliament the issue of increasing the size of the armed forces and limiting the powers of the British inspector- general of the armed forces. When Yakan learned of these plans, he cautioned the Wafdist MPs that the British would never allow a law which affects their control over the army to pass. He also raised the issue with Zaghlul during a visit which ended in an angry exchange between the two men. At the meeting Yakan came under attack by others present, one of whom was the Wafdist minister of war who charged that the prime minister was obstructing the implementation of the ministry's policies.
Meanwhile, in a letter to London, Lloyd feared that trouble was brewing in another direction. A sudden rapprochement between the arch-enemies, the palace and the Wafd, had led him to suspect that a government upheaval was in the making. The architect of this coup, he believed, was Barakat Pasha, the son of Zaghlul's brother, although he believed both sides had a stake in seeing it through. The Wafd was anxious that King Fouad, during his forthcoming visit to Britain, would try to undermine the party, which was aware that its animosity towards the king would ultimately debilitate its national standings. To the Wafd, these were pressing considerations since it felt that the Yakan government would resign sooner or later, necessitating new elections. For his part, the king was interested in overcoming any parliamentary opposition to the budgetary allocations to the palace and he wanted to bring back Nashat Pasha, the former chief of the royal cabinet, who was then in exile in Madrid. In addition, before heading off to London, he wanted to leave behind a friendly government and press.
Lloyd's suspicions were confirmed when Fouad wrote to him to test his reaction should Yakan resign and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Wasef Ghali be selected to form a new government in which Ali Maher, known for his pro-palace sympathies, would be minister of interior. The high commissioner responded that he would prefer to put his weight behind Yakan in order to prevent disruptions.
Leaving the manoeuverings behind the scenes and the secret British dossiers, we return once more to the public domain to follow Al-Ahram's coverage of the events of 18 April 1927.
In its editorial of 20 April, appearing under the headline, "Adli's Government Resigns," Al-Ahram expressed the public's general sense of shock: "We can perceive no sense or sound reason behind this resignation." But the editorial went on to reproach the prime minister for failing to fully understand the dynamics of political life under a constitution. "Instead of taking the parliament's decision not to thank the government for its support for Misr Bank as an indication of lack of confidence, the government should have entered the fray so as to make its views clear and so that parliament could respond to these views. Only in the event that parliament decides to reject the government's policy and withdraw its confidence should the government resign."
The newspaper also faulted Yakan for failing to have an open mind concerning parliament's criticisms, particularly as they concerned social and economic development more than questions of political administration. "When reform is the primary focus of criticism, duty requires us to study them closely so as to be better able to discern the truth." The editorial also claimed the government was too quick in its criticism of the parliament, which, in view of the dynamics of the relationship between government and parliament, could not be blamed. In the end, it appealed to Yakan to withdraw his resignation "in order to bring things back to normal, if that is possible."
As a heading for a second editorial, published the following day, Al-Ahram chose the popular saying: "He hits me on the street and makes up in the alley." Members of parliament were the focus of this article and to the writer the saying summed up their behaviour. What is the point of parliamentary protestations of faith in the government, he asks, "when it attacks the government at every turn, charging that it is incompetent and negligent in implementing the reforms it promised, even while they can see with their own eyes that these reforms are gradually being put into effect?"
The editorial also held that the majority party was in disarray because the parliamentary deputies from that party failed to adhere to a single platform. "It is unacceptable that a deputy from a party should attack the principles of his party or the government formed from that party because it leads to confusion and opens the door to intrigue and scheming. This, in turn, ensures that the government remains insecure, its party in turmoil and its word disunited." The author further charged that this situation prevailed because many deputies cared only for promoting themselves by pandering to the masses. Such demagoguery was detrimental to the public welfare and "is more akin to childish games than to responsible political activity."
It was the British press, however, which voiced what were perhaps the Al-Ahram editorial writer's more private thoughts. The London Times held that the more radical elements in the Wafd, such as Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi, abandoned Zaghlul's policy of restraint "and took advantage of Zaghlul's illness to put the government in an untenable position." To illustrate, the Times related the following story:
On the Monday before the vote, MP Ali El-Shamsi left the parliament building after having told Maher and El-Nuqrashi, "The government has shown great patience over the past two months. Now it will have no choice but to resign." The Times article added that the situation had become all the more precarious because illness had prevented Zaghlul from keeping the "extremists" in check.
If Al-Ahram still entertained hopes that Yakan would change his mind, such hopes were dashed on 21 April when "the king accepted the resignation of the government, which shall continue to perform its duties as normal until a new government is formed."
Following this pronouncement, supporters of Zaghlul sought to persuade him to seek the post of prime minister despite the severity of his illness. In a report to London, Lloyd observed that the national leader seemed to have recovered considerably at that point, while Al-Ahram reported that Zaghlul's supporters suggested that a deputy be appointed "to ease the burdens of office." The high commissioner had no desire to see Zaghlul in office again and saw to it that this was made known to him.
Once the possibility of a Zaghlul premiership was ruled out, speculation over who would be the next prime minister increased greatly. El-Nahhas, the second most powerful figure in the Wafd, seemed the most likely prospect. However, as Al-Ahram reported, he announced "that he has no intention whatsoever of becoming a cabinet member, whether as chief or subordinate, and that he is perfectly content with the public office he currently holds in parliament and with his independent legal practice."
Other names put forward included Ahmed Zaki Abu El-Saoud, deputy speaker of the Senate and former minister of education; Ahmed Mazloum Pasha, of whom it was said that he would be appointed as a Senate member in order to facilitate his elevation to prime minister; and Tawfiq Nasim Pasha, chief of the royal cabinet. Al-Ahram was of the opinion that these possibilities were highly speculative.
Speculation ended when the king appointed Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat to form a new government. Tharwat, as Al-Ahram pointed out, "was a member of the government that has just resigned," and was chosen because "the current situation demands someone with experience and expertise." The choice of Tharwat also met with the Wafd's approval.
The crisis, though resolved, would not escape the wit of Fikri Abaza. In an article written in the form of a letter by the high commissioner to the Foreign Office, Abaza had Lloyd saying that the crisis affirmed that Egypt was the land of miracles, capable of conjuring up surprises everywhere, from its political party system to its government cabinets. Most recently, the "letter" continued, "The majority Wafd Party, whose organisation and administration we all admire and which meets every week to discuss the nation's major concerns, has declared war on the Saadist government while at the same time professing confidence." The "Prince of Wit," as Abaza had been correctly dubbed, thus put a smile on the faces of people who had been taken aback by the week's proceedings.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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