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

Cleaning up the house

In the countdown to the 1952 Revolution Egyptian political leaders were trying hard to get the house in order, ultimately to no avail. Their attempts were recorded on the pages of Al-Ahram. Amina Elbendary reads the issues of February and March 1952

It is often difficult (not to mention dangerous) to argue that any historical development was inevitable. Yet further rereading of the newspapers of 1952 gives a faint sense of the insecurity and uncertainty that must have imbued Egyptian public life in that fateful year; an atmosphere that would become untenable -- "something" ultimately had to happen. And something was evidently wrong by January, when instability finally hit the capital on the 26th. The chaos and destruction that were unleashed in Cairo on that day continued to cast heavy shadows on political life throughout the winter and early spring. Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha's government was dismissed and Ali Maher Pasha formed a new cabinet.

This Maher government, however, was to have a relatively short life. Maher came in with the specific mandate of restoring law and order and addressing the major national concerns: al-galaa ("evacuation" of British troops) and al-wihda ("unity" of Egypt and Sudan).

More Anglo-Egyptian talks about negotiations were conducted. One of the major actors in these attempts was Abdel-Fattah Amr Pasha, Egypt's ambassador to Britain who travelled between London and Cairo trying to convey the Egyptian view to British politicians, including the British foreign minister Anthony Eden, and then advise Egyptian leaders on the response. In Cairo, the stage was set for direct negotiations between the prime minister, Ali Maher Pasha, and the British ambassador, Sir Ralph Stevenson. Al-Ahram carried optimistic front pages on the intended talks. Even as late as 23 February "Ali Maher believe[d] he would achieve galaa and wihda." Britain was perceived to have accepted the inevitability of evacuating its forces completely from Egypt including the Suez Canal Zone Base. The main hurdle which remained was the system of defence that would fill the vacuum left by the departing British forces. And articles in Al-Ahram reflect the various scenarios that were put forth for a "Middle East defence system" by various political actors and powers: the British themselves, the Americans, the Egyptians, the Iraqis and the Asian Muslim countries specifically Iran and Pakistan. Would the Middle East be considered an affiliate to NATO? Would the Arabs join a pact that included Israel? Would symbolic British forces remain stationed in the region? Would military bases be available to them and NATO in case of war?

Even though there were unofficial signs that the principle of evacuation was accepted by the British, the Egyptian-Sudanese unity was an altogether different matter. The British appeared totally unsympathetic to Egyptian demands, as press reports of the period show disinclination on the British side to accept Farouq as "king of Egypt and Sudan"-- a title the king had coveted.

Newspapers continued to guess dates for the beginning of the Maher-Stevenson talks. And then quite suddenly, the ambassador apologised on the agreed date, the first of March, explaining that he had caught the flu. On that same day, Ali Maher resigned from office and Ahmed Naguib El-Hilali Pasha was asked to form a new cabinet. Things were happening fast.

Maher had met with the leaders of the political parties and main political actors, in an obvious attempt to win their support of the forthcoming negotiations. On 27 February he had met with Mohamed Hussein Heikal Pasha, head of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, Ibrahim Abdel-Hadi Pasha, head of the Saadi Party, Hafez Ramadan Pasha, head of the National Party, Makram Ebeid Pasha, head of the Wafdist block, and Hassan El-Hodeibi, supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. The political leaders, however, saw no point in the negotiations believing that the British were not ready to compromise and deeming any talks useless. And it is their lack of support for the negotiations that was perceived to be the main reason behind Maher's resignation.

But if party leaders did not give Maher the support he required to enter into full-fledged negotiations with Britain, they were categorical in their unwillingness to cooperate with El-Hilali, something which forced him to depend in the formation of his cabinet on independent figures. The first move by El-Hilali was to procure a royal decree suspending parliament for a month. The change of government was obviously not quite smooth, especially as the Wafd, the majority party in parliament, was again kept away from power and would not have given the Hilali government a confidence vote. A small item on the front page of 3 March also announces that classes were suspended at Fouad I University in reaction to student demonstrations the previous day.

Once in power, El-Hilali Pasha worked hard to start the negotiations with Britain but tried to keep them behind closed doors; leaks to the press about the nature of the British position on evacuation had led to problems during the Maher premiership.

The first official negotiation meeting took place on 22 March with an Egyptian negotiating team that included, in addition to El-Hilali Pasha himself, his foreign minister, Abdel-Khaleq Hassouna Pasha, and Ambassador Amr Pasha. The British, it is clear even from the pages of Al-Ahram, refused to commit themselves publicly to "the principle of evacuation" before the start of the negotiations. The United States was also trying, through its ambassador to Egypt Jefferson Caffery, to bring the two sides together. Caffery met repeatedly with El-Hilali, Hassouna and Stevenson.

The very next day after the official start of the negotiations, however, parliament was officially dismissed with new elections scheduled for 18 May. Martial law, declared in the wake of the Cairo fires, was extended indefinitely.

While the major national issues were the main preoccupation of the Hilali government, combating corruption appears to have been its main domestic concern. El-Hilali is repeatedly quoted as promising to end corruption and purge the political system of bribery and abuse of power. These implications were perceived to be targeting the Wafd Party in particular, but also the Hilali government's staunchest enemies.

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