|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 December 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (420)
When nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul died in 1927, a power vacuum was created because his successor was not known and there was no standing mechanism for the succession. The "glorious leader" had not said whom he would like to take his place. While Wafd Party leader Mustafa El-Nahhas was the obvious choice, he was not the only candidate. The British had drawn up their own list of aspirants and high-ranking Wafd members met to select the candidate of their choice. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk examines the brief but uncertain period from Zaghlul's death to the naming of his political heir
When Mustafa El-Nahhas became head of the Wafd Party in 1927, following the death of Saad Zaghlul, he was popularly known as "Saad's successor." However, after consolidating his leadership over subsequent years, especially under the Sidqi government (1930-1935), he eventually dropped the title and assumed what had once been used to describe only Zaghlul: "The glorious leader."
This was not the first time that popular leadership in Egypt had undergone a process of succession. Following the death of Nationalist Party leader Mustafa Kamel in February 1908, Mohamed Farid easily took his place for he seemed the natural choice. Not only was Farid the deputy chairman of the party, but it was also said that when the young Kamel was on his deathbed he expressed his wish that Farid succeed him.
The question of Zaghlul's successor was not so straightforward in 1927. Zaghlul made no such deathbed wish, although the fact that El-Nahhas was secretary-general of the Wafd and would stand in as speaker of parliament in Zaghlul's absence made him an obvious choice. Nevertheless, El-Nahhas was not the only candidate, nor necessarily the leading candidate.
Within days of Zaghlul's death, Mr Henderson, the chargé d'affaires of the British high commissioner in Egypt, drew up a list of prospective successors to the late Wafd leader. On the list, which appeared in a lengthy report to London that was later filed in confidential British archives, El-Nahhas' name appeared at the end.
Heading Henderson's list were Fathallah Barakat and Abdel- Khaleq Tharwat. The former seemed a natural choice because of the kinship bond that linked him to Zaghlul -- Barakat was Zaghlul's nephew -- and he was known within the late leader's inner circle as his right-hand man. On the other hand, that Henderson should place Tharwat so high on the list was curious. Tharwat was not even a Wafd Party member. However, to the high commissioner's office, the Wafd was more than a political party. It represented the entire nationalist movement, a view that conformed with the opinion of Wafdist leaders themselves. Under such a loose definition of party boundaries, there would be nothing to prevent Tharwat from assuming the leadership of the Wafd, which the British would have preferred, since they viewed Tharwat as a moderate in contrast to Zaghlul's close supporters whom the British considered extremists. Hampering Barakat's prospects was the fact that he was not favoured by the intellectuals in the Wafd, whereas Tharwat enjoyed the support of "the rational and moderate elements." It was unclear to Henderson whether Tharwat "will continue to seek the backing of those elements or will try to expand his scope of support by drawing on emotions related to his connection with us [the British]."
Another person to watch, the high commissioner's chargé d'affaires wrote, was Mohamed Mahmoud who would make his intentions clear "in the next few days." Like Tharwat, it may have seemed curious that Mahmoud's name appeared on Henderson's list. He was the deputy chief of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party and the party's best known figure. But Mahmoud was one of the four nationalist leaders who accompanied Zaghlul in his first exile to Malta, while the Liberal Constitutionalists were originally a splinter faction of the Wafd. If relations between the two parties had seen periods of acrimony, at the time of Zaghlul's death, they were parties in the ruling coalition, after having run on a single ticket in the parliamentary elections that brought that coalition to power.
Odder yet was that Henderson included Abdel-Hamid Said Qutb at the tail end of his list along with El-Nahhas. Qutb was the leader of the Nationalist Party, another rival of the Wafd. However, like El-Nahhas, Qutb was a charismatic figure who could attract the support of the more radical elements of the Wafd. In fact, Henderson believed that he was a better shot at the vacant chair of the Wafd in view of El-Nahhas' notorious moods.
The conjectures of the high commissioner's office and the premise upon which they were based proved wrong. The Wafd was not such a loosely-structured organisation that it could be equated with the nationalist movement as a whole and could embrace all parties including its staunchest rivals. Simultaneously, the Wafd was structurally strong enough to survive its leadership crisis without having to bring on board outsiders. These factors become apparent as we follow Al-Ahram during the few weeks that followed the death of Zaghlul on 23 August 1927 until El-Nahhas was anointed his successor on 25 September. The interval was less than five weeks but it must have seemed an eternity to the Egyptian people and to the political factions both inside and outside the Wafd.
Questions over the future of the nationalist movement and the Wafd in particular hung palpably over the political climate in the wake of Zaghlul's death. "After Saad?????" -- the headline of Al-Ahram's leading editorial on 28 August -- reflected the anxieties although its primary thrust was to counter the scepticism over the future of the Wafd and the barely concealed glee that characterised the commentaries in the anti- Wafd Al-Muqattam and Al-Ittihad newspapers and in the British press. Al-Ahram cited extracts from these papers that demonstrated the "malicious intent" behind their show of commiseration and went on to assert that "Egypt is bigger than any individual leader, no matter how great." Then, in response to those newspapers' charges that Zaghlul taught the nation to hate the British, Al-Ahram wrote that, instead, they should have looked further back in history and asked, "Who taught the Egyptian people to rally around the young Mustafa Kamel and stand up against the British authorities and the khedive?"
Al-Ahram' did not believe that the Wafd faced a problem of succession and that it was divided over how to resolve it.
Zaghlul died in mid-summer following an illness that lasted no more than a week. Most Wafd leaders were abroad on holiday at the time and were unaware of this dramatic turn of events. They suddenly received telegrams calling on them to return to Egypt as soon as possible and urging them not to take any decisions until they return so as to ensure that the Wafd would remain united and continue to promote the principles of its leader.
Describing the situation in Egypt at the time of Zaghlul's death, the London Times wrote that in summer, political activity dies down as "politicians, if they are able, leave for cooler climes and the Egyptian peasant turns his attention to the Nile flood and the portents for the cotton crop, which divert his mind from all other concerns. However, this year, all is topsy-turvy, for Egypt lost Zaghlul Pasha who was the greatest and most important leader it has produced in recent times, and ministers, politicians and parliamentary deputies hastened back on any ship they could find."
Many feared that no one would succeed in filling the vacuum left by the "glorious leader." Al-Ayyam proposed a "collective leadership, which curiously was first suggested by Ramsey McDonald, leader of the British Labour Party, that was in the opposition at the time. McDonald was a close friend of Zaghlul and had also been the prime minister when negotiations with Zaghlul over Sudan and the Suez Canal collapsed three years earlier. If Egyptians felt McDonald's suggestion had been made in the spirit of his capacity as Zaghlul's friend, there is much to indicate that the British feared the prospect of another charismatic leader who would champion the opposition to the British presence in Egypt. At the same time, a "collective leadership" would be potentially rife with possibilities of rivalries among its members, which would divert the nationalist movement from its primary cause.
Commenting on Zaghlul's death, McDonald said, "Now that Saad Pasha, who was not a party leader but the spirit of a nation, has gone, there should not be a search for a new leader of the nation but for a power created from the whole and an influence that unites efforts." The Labour leader was not alone in suggesting a collective leadership. On 9 September, the Daily Express correspondent in Cairo wrote, "Wafd circles in Cairo appear strongly opposed to all efforts to find a successor to Zaghlul as the chairman of the Wafd. They admit that it is impossible in the current circumstances to find anyone capable of carrying that heavy burden and that to attempt to do so would be a grave political error, which could be averted by appointing a small executive committee."
The Times addressed the intense competition over Zaghlul's seat that would take place between "the aspirants in the Wafd among whom personal grudges and mutual hatreds proliferate." The solution that would show the greatest respect for the late leader would be "not to elect a successor to him, but to appoint a committee to manage the affairs of the party." The Times was quick to add, "It is difficult to say what effect this proposal would have on the public, and whether they would support it or not."
The Scotsman was more realistic. It would be difficult for such a committee to manage the affairs of the party, it said. What was important was to ensure that the next leader of the party was not an extremist because that would soon cause it to fracture, while "the election of a moderate leader would prevent this from occurring." It continued: "Certainly, the preservation of the unity of the Wafd [under a single leader] is not only of great importance to the Wafd but to Prime Minister Tharwat who would otherwise have to negotiate with several leaders instead of one or to present a bill to a committee rather than a single powerful leader, alternatives which would constantly jeopardise the stability of his government." The newspaper also believed that the continued unity of the Wafd would bring more good to Britain than harm. "It is only possible to engage in fruitful negotiations with a united bloc. Should the Wafd disintegrate into factions, the result would be the rise of unstable governments with no one able to speak in the name of Egypt or sign an agreement with Britain acceptable to all Egyptian politicians."
On 18 September, Al-Ahram responded to speculation and commentaries in the British and anti-Saadist press in Egypt under the headline, "The next chairman -- the Wafd's present and future." The editorial urged Egyptians not to pay attention to reactionary newspapers that predicted bitter infighting over the vacant Wafd chairmanship. "These are biased newspapers whose aim is to create a breach in the ranks of the Wafd in order to serve the aspirations of their founders and the designs of those who use them." The reference here was to the mouthpieces of the pro-palace Ittihad Party.
Although the article recognised that "there is no one in Egypt at present who can fill Saad's place," it said, "Among the supporters of the leader are men who, if the people give them their support, will not find it difficult to choose from among themselves one who is fit to perform his national duty relying on the grace of God and strengthened by the backing of his supporters."
As the author of this article was Sayed Ali, a veteran journalist from the Nationalist Party, it was only natural that he would give prominence to the growing trend that El-Nahhas become Zaghlul's successor. "We will not be contradicting the Wafd when we say that the opinions of all are that the chairman whom public opinion hopes to see carrying the banner of the Wafd and continuing its struggle is the man who was linked to the beginning of the nationalist movement in the days of Mustafa Kamel. This man, Mustafa El-Nahhas, was in the midst of the recent national revival, a close aide of Saad and one of the dearest people to his heart."
In fact, the Wafd did consider a specific proposal for group leadership, entailing a central committee of no less than three members with an honourary chairmanship to be bestowed upon Saad's wife, Safiya Zaghlul, while El- Nahhas would continue to act as secretary- general. The proposal was rejected by the majority of Wafd members who felt that its disadvantages outweighed its advantages.
The only alternative left was to choose between one of two candidates: Fathallah Barakat and El-Nahhas. Barakat campaigned vigorously, plugging his blood relationship to the late leader and knocking on every door to rally support, including that of the British high commissioner's office. In The Wafd Party 1936- 1952, Mohamed Farid Hashish offers a brief account of the battle for succession that ended with Barakat's withdrawal. Zaghlul's nephew not only had kinship bonds to boast of but, as one of Egypt's largest landowners, considerable wealth to spend in the service of his office should he be elected. He had also been with his uncle on his exile to the Seychelles and had the backing of the Wafdist old guard, particularly the large landowners among them.
El-Nahhas was the favourite of the Wafdist left, which included such figures as Ali El-Shamsi, Murqos Hanna, Makram Ebeid and Fakhri Abdel- Nur. They felt that Barakat lacked important leadership skills, including oratory qualities, essential for rallying mass support at the time. They also claimed he was not proficient in a major foreign language which, should he become prime minister in a government formed by the majority party in parliament, would be necessary in his dealings with foreign governments. In addition, Barakat's reputed overbearing personality raised fears that he would be a despotic party leader.
Evidently, Barakat sensed which way the wind was blowing. In an interview with Al-Ahram that was conducted before the scheduled Wafd meetings to select the new chairman, he stated that he did want to become chairman of the Wafd and that he was the last person to seek the office. The newspaper continues, "He also said that the chairmanship of the Wafd requires an expert in law, that he would approve of any individual chosen as chairman by his colleagues and that whatever the outcome he will continue his dedicated service as a member of the Wafd and of the government." Soon, Barakat made a more tangible gesture of withdrawing when he, along with other Wafd members, paid a call on El-Nahhas to persuade him to accept the chairmanship.
The first meeting of the Wafd's upper echelons following Zaghlul's death was held on the evening of 14 September in Zaghlul's office in "The House of the Nation," as his home was popularly known. Thirteen top Wafd members were present, foremost among whom were El-Nahhas, El-Shamsi, Ebeid and Abdel-Nur. Nine were absent, including Barakat who had excused himself because of an eye infection.
The meeting lasted five hours and ended with a decision to meet again four days later. The only news of substance that came out of the meeting was that the Wafd members present called on Safiya Zaghlul to express their condolences and that she, in return, expressed her gratitude for the visit and urged them to maintain solidarity and continue the work of her late husband. The Al-Ahram correspondent who was on hand at the first meeting reported he had learned that in the next meeting the Wafd members would "discuss a statement to be released to the nation in which they will pledge to remain united to the principles of Saad and to complete his mission." The statement would also outline the Wafd's policy platform, delineate its relationship with other coalition parties and draw up a charter for the Wafd, "regardless of whether a chairman is appointed to head it or an executive committee is formed to steer it."
During those four days, El-Nahhas tried to prepare himself for the succession. The most important signal to this effect was a visit he made, together with El-Shamsi, to Zaghlul's grave.
The four-day interval also brought speculation about the future of the relationship between the "Mother of the Egyptian People," Safiya Zaghlul, and the Wafd. During the visit of the Wafd delegation and afterwards, she had signalled that she was willing to take part in the party's activity. However, she grave no clue as to what level she hoped this participation would take, leaving the public to wonder whether she would take part in the party's decision-making processes or sponsor the party under her own auspices.
The anticipated meeting of the Wafd elite was held on Monday 18 September and lasted until midnight. Newspaper representatives, among whom was a correspondent for Al-Ahram, were on hand to get the results. However, as the meeting lasted so late in the evening, the results could only be published on Tuesday. Al-Ahram's banner headline of that day's issue read: "The Egyptian Wafd's Statement -- details of its deliberations -- the new Wafd chairman and secretary."
The period of conjecture had come to an end. El-Nahhas was the new Wafd chairman and Makram Ebeid its secretary- general. Earlier it had been proposed to divide responsibilities among three people, whereby a second person would be speaker of the house and a third the head of an executive board that some hoped to create. It was decided, however, that the Wafd Party chairman would also act as speaker of parliament, and that there was no need to create an executive board which would be entirely inconsistent with these principles. As for Safiya Zaghlul, the Wafd elite announced, "She will notify the members of the party of her views and they will notify her of their views and decisions and we do not anticipate any change in this relationship."
Although Al-Ahram took the occasion to present a biography of El-Nahhas, it was so short that we felt it more useful to look for another biographical source on this man who played such an important role in Egyptian politics for the next quarter of a century. We thus turn to the following entry in Arthur Goldsmith's Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt:
"Judge, minister and prime minister seven times. El-Nahhas was born to a small middle class family in Samanoud on 15 June 1879. His father was a wood merchant. He began his education in a French-language school founded by two Copts, after which he moved to Cairo where he obtained his primary school certificate from El-Nasseriya School in 1891 and his secondary decree from the Khedival School five years later. He then joined the Academy of Law from which he graduated in 1900, after which he worked in the office of Mohamed Farid until he moved to Mansoura to start his own legal practice. In 1904, Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat appointed him judge in the Tanta national court, in which position he remained until the 1919 Revolution when he was fired for his involvement in revolutionary activities. He was exiled along with Saad Zaghlul to the Seychelles from 1921 to 1923. Upon his return he was elected to represent the Samanoud constituency in accordance with the constitution of 1923. In 1926, he was elected deputy for Abu Sirbana, Gharbiya constituency. Although the British opposed his appointment to any ministerial position, he served as deputy speaker of parliament until Zaghlul's death, after which he became chairman of the Wafd..."
Goldsmith's biography of El-Nahhas extended until the death of this famous Wafd leader in 1965.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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