Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
Issue No.576
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

In the political countdown to the July 1952 Revolution political figures were coming and going, cabinets were formed only to be dismissed. Al-Ahram Weekly chronicles a political system in flux

Before the fall

As deputy head of the Royal Cabinet between 1944 and 1952 Hassan Youssef was one of King Farouk's closest aides. In this capacity he was party to many behind the scenes episodes. Below is his account of the dramatic last days of a monarch who dismissed three cabinets in as many months

Ali Maher Pasha's [Prime minister between 28 January and 1 March 1952] reconciliatory approach towards Britain can be gleaned from his government's official participation in the funeral of King George VI who passed away on 6 February. A royal delegation headed by Prince Mohamed Abdel-Moneim and Abdel- Fattah Amr Pasha, Egypt's ambassador to St James Court and the air attaché in the Egyptian Embassy in London, were dispatched for the occasion.

However, Ali Maher Pasha declared in Parliament that his policies would continue along the same lines of his "great predecessor," meaning El-Nahhas Pasha, which earned his new government the support of the Wafdist majority in Parliament.

The focus of the new government was to bring down the prices of the basic commodities specifically basic food supplies. It succeeded in restoring law and order and set out to reconstruct and repair buildings and institutions damaged by the Cairo fire. An initial account was opened for reconstruction and rehabilitation with a five million pound balance paid in indemnity for property lost or damaged. Damages due to the fire were estimated at 12 million Egyptian pounds. Universities and schools also resumed their normal routine. The government succeeded in persuading the king to reinstate Sheikh Abdel-Meguid Selim as grand sheikh of Al-Azhar.

BRITISH AMBASSADOR: On 7 February, [British ambassador in Egypt] Sir Ralph Stevenson, presented the prime minister with a memorandum accusing the Wafd government of having been lax in the maintenance of law and order, having thus encouraged criminal acts. He claimed that the fire which devoured and devastated many shops and establishments in Cairo on 26 January was the work of organised criminal gangs. Ali Maher Pasha denounced the charges claiming the outbursts were provoked by British violence against Egyptians and the murder of citizens in the Canal Zone.

Top: King Farouk inaugurating the last pre-revolutionary parliament in 1950; bottom: George VI's funeral
Although the time was not propitious after the events of 26 January to urge the British to evacuate and to declare the unity of the Nile Valley, the prime minister met with the British ambassador on 12 February and asked him to find some solution to the problem. At their third meeting Ali Maher Pasha handed him a schedule for the resumption of negotiations. The British ambassador replied in an official statement demanding that first the ministers of the interior and social affairs (in the Wafd cabinet) be questioned regarding the events of 26 January. Ali Maher simply disregarded the ambassador's reply, and continued to urge negotiations [...].

The first of March, 1952 was the date set for the negotiations to start between the two men. However, before the meeting took place, the head of the Royal Cabinet [Hafez Afifi Pasha] hurriedly went to see the ambassador to tell him that Ali Maher's hours as prime minister were numbered. Consequently, the ambassador apologised for not being able to attend the meeting.

RESIGNATION: For the sake of fairness, it must be said that Ali Maher was sincere in his pledge to the nation made in a speech on 25 February, that "The principle of evacuation was not negotiable, and that the aim of the negotiations was how to achieve the twin goals of evacuation and unity [of the Nile Valley]." He was serious about his commitment to consult leaders with knowledge and vision at every stage, to bring the results of his endeavours to the ears of the nation, and in the event of failure to deliver, step down and join the masses in the common struggle.

Ali Maher seems to have been still largely under the influence of the success he had achieved since 1936 when he headed a government to restore law and order which had remained in office for 100 days. During that short period, however, he had been able to persuade the British to conclude the treaty, to form a negotiating commission representing the entire political spectrum, and to conduct fair elections. On the other hand, [in 1952] he failed to see how different the whole situation was. In 1936, the British who found themselves in the midst of an international crisis precipitated by the Italian-Ethiopian war, were keen to ally themselves with Egypt. But in 1952, they started to call for vengeance, indemnity and prosecution of those who had abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, and who were responsible for launching attacks in the Canal Zone, and for the burning of Cairo.

It soon became apparent to Maher that other political parties were reluctant to cooperate with him; and that his endeavour to appease the Muslim Brothers had angered the palace and the parties as well. In an attempt to appease the Wafd, he had declined to investigate the events of 26 January. This further infuriated the palace which accused him of slow action and laxity in addressing university students' demonstrations. In fact even his interior minister complained of a lack of prompt security action. To make things even worse, he did not deal frankly with the head of the Royal Cabinet even though he knew from experience that the palace was his partner in rule.

Despite all the difficulties, Maher was determined to pursue his policies further. On 27 February, he met with the leaders of the Saadis, the Liberal Constitutionalists, the National Party, the Muslim Brothers, and the Labour Party and explained to them his programme of action as he was about to engage in negotiations with the British ambassador.

DAY OF SURPRISES: The first day of March brought many surprises. At 9.30am, Maher received a message from the British ambassador cancelling his appointment with the prime minister for having come down with a severe cold. At 10.30am, the cabinet suddenly held an emergency meeting after a visit by the head of the Royal Cabinet to the prime minister. The cabinet engaged in a heated discussion regarding a royal decree (signed by the king, but not dated) stipulating the suspension of Parliament. Maher saw no need to announce the existence of such a decree after the Parliament had approved the allocation of five million pounds. But Akhbar Al-Yom published it that same day, and the discussion of the issue led to the resignation of both ministers of finance and interior. The prime minister asked for an appointment with the king, but his request was referred to the head of the Royal Cabinet. Maher had no alternative but to go to the palace, tender his resignation, standing, and walk out again with no one to see him out.

I mention that no one saw him out because, during my work at the Royal Cabinet, I never failed to see important figures (prime ministers and ministers, present or former), leave without seeing them to the lift or to the outside gate of the palace. But this time when Maher walked into the office of Hafez Pasha, handed his resignation to the head of the Royal Cabinet, turned and walked out, I was mesmerised. I had just been hearing from Hafez Pasha about an emerging crisis due to the publication of the royal decree stipulating the suspension of Parliament without the knowledge of the prime minister. This crisis was further exacerbated by a dispute which had erupted between the prime minister and his interior minister [Mortada El-Maraghi], who had been imposed by the palace, hence the reference in [Ali Maher's] resignation letter to "obstacles" preventing him from achieving his set goals. My presence in the office of Hafez Pasha and my failure to react by seeing Ali Maher out, only helped to confirm his doubts that I had prior knowledge of what had been brewing in the palace against his cabinet, which was not the case. Unfortunately however, this incident created hard feelings towards me in Maher's heart, so that when he came back to office in July 1952, he paid me back twofold.

EL-HILALI'S CABINET: On the afternoon of 1 March, the head of the Royal Cabinet called El-Hilali Pasha and asked him to form a government and the latter accepted the assignment. After some hours of haggling over names, the list of ministers was declared at 2.00am the following day.

In his choice of ministers, El-Hilali avoided members of political parties, and instead, focused on independent candidates, retaining Mortada El-Maraghi as minister of the interior and Zaki Abdel-Metaal as minister of finance. However, he was in loggerheads with the palace over his candidate for the Ministry of Public Health. He had approached Dr Soliman Azmi, Dr Ibrahim Shawqi then Dr Ali Tawfiq Shusha, but all had declined. The king had then suggested Dr Ahmed Mohamed El-Naqib (director of Al-Muwasa Hospital in Alexandria) but El-Hilali had categorically refused. As a result, ratification of the decree forming the government was postponed until 6.00pm the same day. The Ministry of Public Health had remained without a minister, and its functions were assumed by the minister of social affairs.

The new cabinet established judicial committees to investigate administrative crimes and offences committed by ministries and departments as well as by institutions controlled or monitored by the state. Each committee consisted of a Counsellor (a member of the State Council), or by a public attorney as chairman, and members drawn from the State Council, district attorneys, and high-ranking administrative employees. It was the job of those committees to investigate any reported incidents of abuse of privilege and corruption. Some of the findings of the judicial committees [formed by El-Hilali's cabinet] were used as an evidence against a number of political figures purged by the 1952 Revolution.

El-Hilali's government abolished all kinds of exceptions and privileges which had been reinstituted and excessively expanded by the Wafd when in power. A law issued by decree was passed on 1 April, 1952 abolishing all kinds of increments, privileges and exceptional treatment of employees effective since 8 October, 1944. Increments to exceptional pensions in excess of 15 pounds a month were abolished with the exception of officers' war pensions and those granted for patriotic considerations.

The cabinet decided to suspend parliamentary meetings for a month, a move to which the Wafd reacted by withdrawing confidence in the government within and outside parliament. On 24 March, a decree was issued dissolving the Chamber of Deputies and setting the date for elections as 18 May. The new Chamber was set to meet on 31 May. But the dates were changed, and government supporters alluded to the creation of a new party formed of "good people" from all parties, who would then run for elections under the banner of the "new party." Moreover certain ministers made public references regarding the government's intention to amend the election law.

Anglo-Egyptian negotiations starting on 21 March 1952 including from right Amr Pasha, Hassouna Pasha, Sir Ralph Stevenson, El-Hilali Pasha and Creswell, the British minister plenipotentiary
Finally, the ministry decided to postpone elections for an indefinite period. A decree to this effect was issued on 12 April. All procedures were placed on hold as a result of complaints demanding that the voters registry be opened once again. They claimed that Wafd members in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies during the previous Wafd government had tampered with the registration of voters, registering only the names of their supporters, denying registration for their opponents.

On 12 June, the minister of the interior stated that elections would take place in October 1952, and that Parliament would meet in November of the same year.

EVACUATION AND THE SUDAN: On 21 March, the prime minister held a preliminary meeting with the British ambassador, followed by several meetings between the ambassador and the Egyptian foreign minister. The preliminary period, however, extended until the end of April when Anthony Eden stated that he had no objection to recognising the king's title as "King of Egypt and the Sudan," on condition that prior to negotiations, Egypt recognised the right of the Sudanese people to self-determination. The British ambassador went to London for consultations with his government and came back on 4 May with the latest proposals. But the conditions were not found satisfactory and after the meeting with the ambassador, the prime minister declared that total evacuation from the canal zone, and the unification of the Nile Valley were the two condition for resuming official negotiations. On 10 May, Al-Ahram disclosed the main thrust of the [British] proposals, which refused the recognition of the title "King of Egypt and the Sudan" before consulting with the Sudanese and asserted British willingness to a gradual evacuation of the Canal Zone Base.

The United States remained in close proximity with events, through its ambassador to Egypt, Mr Jefferson Caffery. Its under secretary of state, Mr Henry Byroade came to Cairo where he met with the prime minister and minister of foreign affairs on 8 May. The United States had wished to keep the door open for negotiations.

Consultations between Cairo, London, Washington and Khartoum remained active to solve the problem of Sudan. In a brilliant political manoeuvre, El-Hilali invited a delegation from the Umma Party in Sudan for talks (the delegation was composed of Abdallah El-Fadil El-Mahdi, Abdel-Rahman Ali, the minister of education, and Mohamed Saleh El-Shanqiti, the head of the legislative assembly). After several meetings with the prime minister, El-Shanqiti stated that there was a good chance to reach an agreement.

TWO MISSIONS ABROAD: I conveyed to the king the suggestion by the Brazilian minister plenipotentiary in Cairo to reinforce relations between the two countries and exchange decorations between their leaders. The king consented and entrusted me with the mission in Brazil as ambassador extraordinary.

When Mr Caffery received word of my mission, he suggested that I pass by Washington to consult on the recognition of the US government of the title of "King of Egypt and the Sudan."

I sailed from Alexandria on 31 May and was back in Cairo on 29 July to find out that many things had drastically changed.

When I was in the presence of the king on 29 May to ask leave for my voyage, he handed me a memorandum submitted to him by Karim Thabet, his press adviser, which claimed that the economy was in shambles, the political situation critical, and that sacking El-Hilali would be in the king's best interest. The people, it said, are talking about one of three options:

ï To bring back El-Nahhas Pasha, an option which did not seem appropriate since the king had sacked the Wafd government only four months before;

ï To entrust Mortada El-Maraghi who was only at the threshold of his political career, with the formation of a new cabinet;

ï To ask Hussein Serri Pasha to form a government which would be a neutral government and then stage new general elections.

When I finished reading the memorandum, the king asked me for my thoughts and I simply told him it was mere nonsense. Seeing that he was in a good mood, I asked him what it was that he had against El-Hilali or against members of his cabinet. When he denied there was anything wrong, I was further encouraged to tell him that the current government was his choice, and that it had formulated a nationalist programme which focused on purging the government machinery, and was in the process of establishing a new party of selected elements, which would possibly draw many Wafdists to its ranks. The government, I said, was doing well on the negotiations front, was keeping the head of the Royal Cabinet updated on its progress, was in the process of amending the election law and should at least be given some time until October or November when, according to the Constitution, the newly elected Parliament would meet. If it wins the elections, it would remain in power, but if not, the party winning a majority in Parliament would form the government.

The king seemed satisfied with my response, and asked me for the date of my return. I told him that my mission would be over by the beginning of July, after which I was intending to go to France for treatment. I explained that Hafez Pasha would begin his leave in August, to which he commented that there was no need then to change anything before October, this he said in English. This was the last time I spoke to the king.

EL-HILALI RESIGNS: When I told the head of the Royal Cabinet of my conversation with the king, he seemed to be in total agreement with what I had told the king. That was the advice of responsible people inside the palace, but there were irresponsible elements amongst the palace employees who were scared lest the corruption purge [of El-Hilali's cabinet] affect them. They sought to preempt such a possibility by suggesting to the king that he replace El-Hilali with Hussein Sirri.

With my mission in Rio de Janeiro accomplished, I arrived in New York on 24 June to find Mr Stabler from the State Department waiting for me to tell me that I would meet Mr Bruce the deputy secretary of state on 30 June.

The news that El-Hilali's government had resigned on 28 June and that the king had lent his ears to his entourage, came as a veritable shock to me. During the luncheon reception held by Mr Henry Byroade (who was appointed ambassador to Egypt later), in my honour in Blair House, he told me in hushed tones that the US ambassador had just sent a cable to the effect that Hussein Serri Pasha was forming the new government and that he had appointed Karim Thabet as minister without a portfolio to liaise between the government and the Palace. I said jokingly that this would make my work in the Royal Cabinet much lighter.

Egypt's ambassador to Washington Kamel Abdel- Rehim Bey was present at the reception, but when I asked him about the new government, he said that he had not received word from Cairo. Consultations were still under way, it was not until four days later that Serri Pasha's government was sworn in.

* The above is an extract from Hassan Youssef's memoirs, Al-Qasr wa Dawruh fi Al-Siyasa Al- Misriya 1922-1952 (The Role Played by the Royal Palace in Egyptian Politics, 1922 -- 1952)

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