25 - 31 July 2002
Issue No. 596
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (452)
False hopesEgyptian newspapers were preoccupied with British elections in May 1929, as their outcome was expected to deeply influence the country. Many pinned their hopes on the Labour Party coming to power and granting Egypt full independence. In this week's instalment of the Diwan Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* follows the campaign and the lead-up to the elections through the pages of Al-Ahram as well as the inevitable disappointment that followed despite the Labour victory
On Thursday, 30 May 1929, Egyptians were on tenterhooks as they awaited the announcement of electoral results. The elections were not Egyptian, but British.
The Egyptian press had turned its attention to the British legislative elections over two months earlier. The prospect of a change in the British government, many felt, would have a great impact on the "Egyptian question". Certainly the change would bring about a departure from the current Conservative government's policy towards Egypt, which, as carried out through its High Commissioner in Cairo, was to void the Declaration of 28 February 1922 of all substance.
Al-Ahram was there, along with the rest of the national press, with lengthy predictions on the possible results and their effects on Egypt. Of particular significance was a series of articles analysing the current domestic situation in Great Britain, the mood and composition of the electorate and the circumstances of the rival parties.
Of landmark importance in these elections was the fact that the previous year British women had gained the full right to suffrage. Beneath the headline "Women and government in Britain", one commentator discussed the arguments that had been cited in favour of this right. In their drive to participate in government women rested their case on the principle that "the choice of rulers must be based purely on considerations of competence." That women were eligible to participate in public life on this basis emanated from the fact that "the outmoded view that women were created to remain in the home under the protective wing of men is no more than a groundless legacy of history," they argued.
The "Sociologist", as the writer signed himself, went on to refute the contention that women were unsuited to govern "because they are prey to their emotions, quick to panic and too frail to endure the hardships of participating in the vital realm of political rivalry". These traits, so often cited by opponents to women's rights, were not intrinsic to women and could be weeded out through proper upbringing and education.
Clearly an ardent champion of the feminist cause, the "Sociologist" hailed British women's victory in their century-old battle for the right to vote as a momentous turning point in the history of humanity, compared to which other epoch making events, such as the French Revolution, paled. He rejoiced at the statistics that confirmed this and that revealed that out of the 26 million registered voters in England 14 million were women. It was the female vote that would determine the outcome of the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Britain, he exclaimed.
But who the female vote would go to was a source of widespread debate. The Conservatives believed that since it was under their government that women gained suffrage they would put their weight behind Conservative candidates. The Labour Party, which was campaigning on the promise that it would expand the scope of women's political rights and to appoint women to some ministerial posts, was certain that it would win the female vote.
In a subsequent article the "Sociologist" offered Al-Ahram readers a historical overview of the parties rivalling for power in Great Britain. The British political party system had its roots in two parties: the Whigs and the Tories. These parties were not established along religious affiliations or founded upon a class divide, such as in pre-revolutionary France. Unlike the French nobility "the sons of British lords, as long as their fathers were alive, had the same status as the rest of the people. This is why Whigs and Tories were represented in both houses of parliament: the House of Lords and the House of Commons."
In 1832 the parliamentary Reform Bill left a deep imprint on the configuration of political parties. Moderate Whigs, who felt that the Bill constituted "a first step of many that must be towards reform" changed their name to Liberals. Controversy over the bill precipitated a split in Tory ranks, with some styling themselves as Conservatives and others going over the Liberal camp.
Henceforth, the Liberals and Conservatives alternated in power until the 20th century, when a new "energetic power" entered the political party system. The Labour Party rose with such astounding speed that "in 1922 it secured a permanent status in parliament and in 1924 it swept into power and formed the government that ruled the Empire".
The advantage of the political party system, in the opinion of the "Sociologist", was not solely that it ensured the existence of an opposition in parliament. Rather, "the most distinct advantage of political parties resides in the intellectual stimulus they generate among the public through their appeals to the electorate and their campaigns to persuade the public of the causes and political agendas they will pursue should they reach power."
As a considerable segment of Egyptian public opinion had its hopes pinned on the Labour Party, Al-Ahram devoted extensive space to its development. Only 30 years earlier, it wrote, it only had three members in the House of Commons and these had fielded themselves as Liberal candidates. Within a few years, however, Labour came to occupy 54 seats in that house, a figure that soared to 191 in 1923 giving it the mandate to form a government. "That the Conservative Party, with its generations-old history, has come to tremble before a party that is, in comparison, still in its infancy, compels one to contemplate its fate in the face of the overwhelming Labour tide," Al-Ahram observed. It went on to predict a Labour victory in view of its great popularity among "diverse classes of the people and in academic and scholastic circles", adding, "even many civil servants subscribe to the principles of this party".
On 30 May 1929 -- the day of the elections -- Al-Ahram's correspondent in London toured the British capital to observe the polls in progress. All was proceeding with customary British aplomb; signs of political activity were very few. He was also surprised to note that the number of women in the polling queues outnumbered men by four to one.
As is customary in the tense interval while the ballots are being counted, the rival parties each took all available opportunities to express their confidence that they would win. Conservative leaders, Al-Ahram's correspondent wrote, proclaimed that they would claim no less than a 52 seat majority over the other two parties. Liberals declared that their electoral prospects were excellent and that "enthusiasm within their ranks was at the highest pitch". Labour leaders claimed that their victory in industrial centres would carry their party into power with a huge and unprecedented majority.
On 1 June 1929, Al-Ahram's front-page blazoned the banner headline: "British elections: Labour 288, Conservatives 253, Liberals 52 and Independents 5 out of a total of 615 seats". In local elections, Labour won 129 and lost 4, Liberals won 29 and lost 19, and Independents won three and lost two. Conservatives lost 139 constituencies.
Beneath the headline "Conservative defeat", Al-Ahram remarks that as Labour leaders rejoiced over their victory, 20 communist candidates performed so poorly at the pools that they lost their deposit, Liberals were despondent and "Conservatives bowed their heads in seeming acquiescence to their fate." As a result of these elections, five Conservative ministers were ousted from government.
Expressing the jubilation of his party, Labour leader MacDonald announced that the polls confirmed all predictions. "The government had lost the confidence of the country and the Labour Party won it, and by a landslide at that."
Over the next two days people were caught up in the forecasts regarding the British government. Would the Conservative government resign? Would Labour form a coalition with the Liberals to secure a parliamentary majority? And, as the Manchester Guardian asked, would the Liberals agree to a coalition? The Liberal Party mouthpiece doubted it.
The Conservatives answered the first question when their leader tendered his resignation as prime minister, leaving the field open to Labour to form a new government. The move greatly impressed Egyptians, whose parliament had been dissolved in order to make way for the current "government of the iron grip". In its editorial of 6 June Al-Ahram stressed the "sovereignty of the constitutional spirit, which must prevail in every country that wishes to be constitutional". In his letter of resignation the outgoing prime minister said that he had stepped down "so that the Labour Party, as the representative of the majority of the people, can form a government and enjoy the rights justly and fairly due to them". Al-Ahram eagerly commented: "How beautiful the word 'justly' is here, how great the word 'fairly'. These two words embody the spirit of the constitution. It is the constitutional spirit that demands ceding to the judgement of the people and their will when the people have cast their judgement." The editorial continues, "It is just that the majority should rule and it is fair that its leader should govern."
The message that Al-Ahram sought to convey to the king and prime minister of Egypt was unmistakable. But, it also had a message to convey to the rival parties in Egypt; when a ruling party was voted out of power that was not the end of the world. Under a proper constitutional system, "the leader of the majority and the leader of the minority engage in constant consultations and deliberations until they agree upon the best course to follow in the pursuit of vital public affairs."
The newspaper reminded readers that the British had no written constitution or codified law. Rather it was "precedent and experience that prescribed the limits of each individual in the nation and the limits and duties of each group in power, and that ensured that no one transgressed their proscribed bounds".
Soon after the Conservative prime minister resigned the Labour Party announced its new cabinet. Al-Ahram briefly introduced the most crucial members of this cabinet to its readers beginning, naturally, with the incoming prime minister.
Born in Scotland in 1866, Al-Ahram writes, Ramsay MacDonald worked his way up through the Independent Labour Party ranks, eventually serving as its chairman between 1906 and 1909. In 1911, he was elected leader of the Labour Party. He was a member of the House of Commons from 1906 to 1918 and authored several books including Socialism and Society, The Labour Party and The Empire and Socialism and Government.
Of crucial importance to Egypt was the new minister of the foreign office, Arthur Henderson. It was he who would be heading the British side of negotiations with Egyptian leaders over a new treaty. As chairman of the International Socialist Federation of Workers, Henderson was involved in international labour politics and attended all European labour conferences. He also served in the coalition government that was formed in 1915. The last post he had occupied was minister of the interior in MacDonald's previous cabinet.
Henderson had extensive experience in international affairs and was familiar with many European leaders, the New Statesman observed. The British periodical went on to add that although Henderson did not know Arabic and spoke little French, "this should not be considered a debility. Based on what we know of his character it would be erroneous to believe that he is easily intimidated or seeks to intimidate others. He is certain to undertake the duties of the Foreign Office in a manner that will command admiration."
The Economist was of a very different opinion. Henderson, it remarked, was not known for his perspicacity; nor for his breadth of experience in the affairs of the Empire. The person who did inspire optimism, however, was the under-secretary of foreign affairs, the noted economist Mr Dalton.
Not surprisingly, Al-Ahram was particularly interested in Britain's first female cabinet member: Margaret Bandfield -- "an intelligent, competent woman who will be working alongside men in devising the policies of the Empire". The new minister of labour had begun her working career as a shop assistant, like Prime Minister MacDonald who boasted that when he first came to London he had no more than two and a half shillings in his pocket and had to live on eight pence a day.
The British press was greatly impressed with Bandfield's composure when she went along with her fellow ministers to Windsor Palace to meet the king. "She walked among the gathered crowds with unshakable calm and firm resolve, and when someone asked her whether the burden of office would be too great for her, she smiled, shook her head and answered, 'No'." Bandfield's political career was astounding, Al-Ahram continued. She was a leader of the British feminist movement, a prominent advocate of women's suffrage and one of the organisers of the British socialist movement 30 years before.
Naturally, what most concerned Egyptians was what the setting of the sun on the Conservative government and the rising of the Labour had in store for them. Al-Ahram welcomed reports in the British press of the intention of the new government to adopt a new policy towards Egypt and India. It took encouragement from observations that Henderson was compliant and would defer to the opinions of the prime minister, and it rejoiced at the statement of a Labour MP that the Labour government's task as concerned Egypt and India required bold measures. With regard to Egypt in particular, the Labour MP declared that Britain "must recognise its full independence and give its elected parliament the opportunity to resume the performance of its duties".
The British press, in return, picked up on the optimism the new Labour cabinet inspired in Egypt. Writing from Cairo, the Daily Mail correspondent observed that the Egyptian people had watched the elections closely and that Wafd circles welcomed the Labour victory. "They regard this victory as a good omen for Egypt, although they cautioned against excessive optimism and unrealistic hopes. They say that the most Egyptians can hope for from the British is a change in style, not a change in policy. Nevertheless, we have observed that the supporters of Wafd leader El-Nahhas Pasha are instilling people with the belief that parliamentary life in Egypt will soon be restored."
The Near East, too, had a correspondent in Cairo who reported that, upon hearing the election results, the Wafd dispatched the party secretary, Makram Ebeid, to London with instructions to persuade British authorities to dismiss British High Commissioner to Egypt Lord Lloyd and to appoint a successor who was more sympathetic to Egyptian nationalist demands. The correspondent predicted that the Wafd official's trip would meet with little success given that since the new cabinet was formed Foreign Secretary Henderson had given every indication that he "intends to pay no attention to what the Wafdists say or do". "This suggests that there is no cause to fear that the changing of the British government will alter the current situation with regard to Egypt." It is not difficult to perceive the Near East's editorial position on Egypt, nor to understand Wafdist cautions against over-optimism.
In a subsequent article, the Near East claimed that since the Wafd Party was no longer able to stir up trouble in the country, its leaders began to promote themselves through pledges on the stances they would take towards the Labour government. At the same time, it suggested that Egypt was doing very well without Wafd interference. It praised the government of Mohamed Mahmoud which had been able to achieve a lot in a year free of disturbances. It added, "It is grossly erroneous for Wafd leaders to claim that the world's opinion of and esteem for the Egyptian people is contingent upon the extent to which British interests in Egypt are reduced instead of upon the amount of noble and beneficial activities they engage in."
Al-Ahram was not greatly influenced by such points of view in the British press, as is evident in the lengthy editorial on "Egypt and the British Elections" which appeared on its front-page of 2 June. Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat agreed that the attention of the Egyptian people had been riveted to the British electoral campaign, but not because they felt that the results would affect Great Britain's political status in Egypt or Sudan. Rather the elections held in the balance the question of British treatment of Egypt: "Lenience and flexibility versus severity and rigidity, and kindness and consideration versus conceit and selfishness".
What Egyptians wanted, Barakat continued, was independence and liberty. He therefore cautioned his fellow countrymen against depending upon others, especially Britain, to raise Egypt up, since the only difference between the Conservatives and Labour is that the former use intimidation and the latter enticement. "The change from Liberals to Conservatives to Labour is only evident in the domestic affairs of their country. In foreign affairs, all their parties and ministers operate on a single basis, which is the quest for fortune. As this is the constant, the only factor that can vary from the policy of one party to another is the way they treat us under their rule."
The same opinion was voiced by lawyer Fikri Abaza in Al-Ahram of 8 June, whose article "Don't talk to me about Egypt. I'm busy!" was distinguished by his celebrated wit. It started with the declaration that "as soon as the British elections got under way, I called in three sheikhs into my office everyday to recite the Qur'anic verses that would ensure the Conservatives' defeat. Then, on Thursday 30 May, I stayed up until midnight, getting updates on the polls, either by phone or from the post boards of newspaper offices. In between, I lit candles and dedicated money to Al-Sayed Al-Badawi and Al-Sayeda Nafisa praying for a Labour victory."
When Abaza, a member of the suspended Egyptian parliament, awoke the following day, he rejoiced to learn that God had answered his prayers and that his offerings were well spent. "The results were perfect, MacDonald was told to form a government and I breathed a sigh of relief. I began to get my speeches in order and I started to think about our cherished Sudan and beyond."
The satirist goes on to relate that he dusted off his suit and got out his railway pass as he waited for the word from MacDonald that the Egyptian parliament would reopen. But, when the new British prime minister did speak it was only to deliver the terse statement: "Don't talk to me about Egypt. I'm busy!" Then, somehow Abaza had succeeded in deciphering an exchange of coded telegrams between High Commissioner Lloyd in Cairo and his new boss:
Lloyd: "The communications of the Empire will be endangered if Egypt is released from its present circumstances."
MacDonald: "Rest assured that the safety of British communications is above all political party considerations."
Lloyd: "A Wafd leader is on his way to Paris, and perhaps London, for the purposes of propaganda. We advise severing his return route."
MacDonald: "Consider it done."
The article concludes with an appeal to the Egyptian people to reconcile their differences and devise a national plan. He continues, "For my part, I promise to keep quiet and not to contact the Labour people or anyone else. As for you, take it easy, laugh regularly and get ready for the return of parliament." In the meantime, however, he cautioned Egyptians against the folly of depending on British governments, past, present and future. The Egyptian people had to bear in mind that they had only themselves to rely on and that, as they had proved on many occasions, they were "a people to be reckoned with". Abaza's advice seems appropriate for all ages.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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