15 - 21 August 2002
Issue No. 599
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
A Diwan of contemporary life (455)
Going through the motionsThe 1929 parliamentary elections were boycotted by the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, leaving the nominees of the majority popular Wafd Party as the only serious contestants. However, even though the outcome was known long before voters went to the ballots, this did not prevent some campaign squabbling as Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* uncovers from articles in Al-Ahram
The 1929 elections were probably the strangest in the history of the Egyptian parliament before 1952. A few weeks earlier, the "iron grip" cabinet of Mohamed Mahmoud resigned to make way for an interim government headed by Adli Yakan whose mandate would be to arrange for those elections.
What made the 1929 elections so odd was that the parliament that they were to form had a specific task. It was to vote on the proposed Anglo-Egyptian treaty that resulted from the negotiations between the former prime minister, Mohamed Mahmoud, and the British Prime Minister Arthur Henderson. At least, that was how the British saw it. They wanted the treaty to have the stamp of the Egyptian people on it. If this were not forthcoming from the coming parliament, it would clearly have to go. And, indeed, so it did in the end.
The configuration of parties entering into these elections was also unusual. Since the 1923 Constitution, electoral campaigns had featured two prime contestants: the overwhelmingly popular Wafd Party and the minority Liberal Constitutionalists, the "party of the notables", as it was sometimes referred to. While the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist locked horns in centre field, some smaller parties would be circling on the sidelines. Of these were the National Party, headed by Hafez Ramadan, and the pro-palace Ittihad Party founded in 1925.
Such was the party configuration in 1924, in 1925, which produced the shortest lived parliament in Egyptian history, and in 1926, in which a coalition of some of the above parties produced the parliament that was dismissed two years later by the government of Mohamed Mahmoud.
In 1929, however, the Liberal Constitutionalists surprised Egyptians with the announcement that they would not contest the elections. The reason they declared in a statement published in Al-Ahram on 21 October was their opposition to the Wafd's stand on the proposed treaty with Britain. The Wafd, they suggested, was seeking to monopolise an issue of national importance. "It has refused to declare its opinion on the bill and to allow it to become an issue in the forthcoming elections. Moreover, as is evident from the statements of its president, it has begun to suggest that it can come up with a better settlement."
The Liberal Constitutionalist statement concluded: "Since elections conducted on such a basis offer little assurance over the fate of the draft treaty; since the Wafd Party, as its president indicates, believes it can win more rights for Egypt than that treaty offers; and since the Liberal Constitutionalists welcome any political gain for the country regardless who wins it, the Liberal Constitutionalists have resolved the following: in the desire to safeguard the draft treaty from the dangers that threaten it, whether in the forthcoming polls or in the elected parliament, and in the desire not to stand in the way of a more advantageous treaty the Wafd may obtain, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party shall not take part in the forthcoming elections. In so doing it shall be absolved of responsibility for the consequences that ensue from new developments."
However, British archives reveal other motives behind the decision taken by the "notables' party". In a letter to the Foreign Office, British High Commissioner in Cairo Sir Percy Lorraine reported that the idea of boycotting the elections had occurred to Constitutionalist leader Mohamed Mahmoud even before he tendered his resignation. That was 20 days before the Liberal Constitutionalist announcement, that is well before Mustafa El- Nahhas, the Wafd party leader, had made the statements alluded to in the Liberal Constitutionalist announcement.
Lorraine went on to say that, before his party issued its announcement, Mahmoud had met with the oriental secretary in the office of the high commissioner and cited different reasons for withdrawing from the elections. Mahmoud had complained to that official, for example, of British intervention in Egyptian domestic affairs, a complaint the Liberal Constitutionalist leader had not reiterated in his subsequent meeting with Lorraine. In the high commissioner's opinion, the Wafd would sweep the elections, leaving the Liberal Constitutionalists with only a handful of seats at best. "Their suggested boycott, therefore, no doubt arises from a desire to avoid the humiliation of a crushing defeat."
In a subsequent letter to London, Lorraine voiced his dismay at the Liberal Constitutionalists' decision. The elections, he wrote, would be "one-sided", yielding a parliament without an opposition. Such a parliament would not be powerful enough to sign the treaty -- a prospect that the British were doing all to avoid.
The views that British officials voiced in their confidential correspondence were aired openly in the British press. The Near East, for example, was of the opinion that the Liberal Constitutionalists had prejudiced the interests of the Egyptian people. "Egypt needs the best minds it can produce for its parliament, and it is their duty to run for parliament. Then, if they fail, the most that will be said of them is that they did what they had to, at which point, they cannot not be held responsible for what evolves from a parliament deprived of a respectable opposition. It is not comforting under the present circumstances to hear that the moderates and enlightened are giving up the fight in the general elections in Egypt."
The British were not alone in their disappointment. Without the Liberal Constitutionalists running against it, the Wafd would not be able to show off its true strength in the polls -- an opportunity it had been waiting for in order to demonstrate the extent of popular condemnation for the unconstitutional rule of the Mahmoud government. Nor was the general public pleased with the Liberal Constitutionalists' decision, as is reflected in many articles in Al-Ahram.
Beneath the headline, "Liberal Constitutionalists boycott elections," Al-Ahram of 25 October 1929 wrote, "Regardless of the motives and justifications behind it, their decision is regretful, because it is the consequences that count, and the consequences will not reflect well on Egypt's reputation." It continues, "Egypt's reputation is of major importance in this worthy matter. As long as the realisation of the aspirations of nations and peoples depends upon public opinion and public opinion depends upon a good reputation, every Egyptian is called upon to serve his country."
The article went further to contend that parties bent on boycotting elections should dissolve themselves and withdraw from the political arena, which would "concur with the natural order and logical laws of the conventions of politics". Certainly, this would be better than for such a party to remain active, "yet without entering the elections and without waging, in the national elections and in parliamentary deliberations, that sacred political war, which is the soul of constitutional life, the backbone of parliamentary politics in the world and, hence, the life force of reform and development".
True, the National Party and Ittihad remained in the race, in which regard Percy Lorraine had some revealing details to add. In a communication to London he reported that the National Party would have emulated the Liberal Constitutionalists had he not expressed his displeasure to its leaders dissuading them from taking that course of action. Only a quarter of a century earlier the National Party was in the vanguard of the call to resist the British -- how the mighty had fallen.
The high commissioner also related that Ittihad Party leaders felt that the absence of the Liberal Constitutionalists would work to their advantage. In the interests of form, the Wafd would be keen on keeping them in the field and would, therefore, cede them some seats in parliament, they thought.
Still, the two parties carried far too little weight to perform the function Al-Ahram described, a fact that seemed borne out in Abdallah Hussein's account of the campaigning. The newspaper's staff writer reports that activity of the two minority parties was barely detectable. So dominant was the Wafdist presence that "when you tour the various constituencies you find all the focus on one Wafdist candidate versus another". In fact, "some independents applied to the Wafd to be fielded as Wafdist candidates".
In the one-sided elections it was entering, the Wafd would need different criteria for selecting its candidates. Under ordinary circumstances, candidates would be fielded on the basis of their record on behalf of the nationalist struggle, family prestige and kinship connections, and power to finance their campaigns. In this campaign, however, Al-Ahram believed the Wafd had to adopt a new approach. It urged Wafd leaders to devote scrupulous attention to the selection of their candidates. It would not do just to field anyone whatsoever in whatever constituency comes to their attention, as the next parliamentary deputies "will be shouldering the burden of determining the fate of the nation". It added, "The draft treaty is not an ordinary article of legislation that parliament could remedy if it were poorly drafted. Nor is it a public ordinance that could be amended, or a budgetary allocation that could be rescinded."
Naturally, a one-sided election produced a different breakdown of contestants. We could take as one category, for example, that large percentage of Wafdist candidates who could be so assured of their seats in parliament that they did not have to spend a piastre on their campaigns. After all the candidacies were in, the Ministry of Interior reported that 111 out of parliament's 230 seats were uncontested. In another words, half of the battle was won even before the polls opened.
Then there were those constituencies in which more than one Wafd candidate was running. On this situation, Al-Ahram of 18 November reports, "There is currently in progress an amicable drive to persuade Wafdists who have nominated themselves in certain constituencies against other Wafdists to revoke their candidacy. Already some of those candidates have given to understand that they will do that before election day."
A second category consisted of those Wafd members or supporters who fielded themselves on a Wafd ticket out of "principle". For the most part, candidates in this category sought to use their connections of urban or rural status to pressure the Wafd to nominate them. When such connections proved insufficient they nominated themselves as supporters of the Wafd platform.
Abdallah Hussein, a lawyer and a frequent contributor to Al- Ahram, depicts such a situation in his customary wry wit. Spinning a lengthy tale of how he sought to convince the Wafd to nominate him, he relates that he began in the Khalifa district in Cairo, where he had his office. Although some of the people in that district, mostly clients of his, went to Wafd headquarters to apply for his nomination, the Wafd turned them down. The party had already completed its lists for the capital.
Hussein did not despair. Off he went to the ninth constituency of the Assiut directorate, "in which is located my native village, Beni Adiyat, and in which I have not inconsiderable connections with the large families, which are bound to my family through various bonds of kinship and marriage". He continues, "The heads of those families presented the Wafd with petitions to nominate me. Yet, when the Wafd published its list for the Assiut constituency I could not find my name on it. I was baffled. That is the constituency in which I have my kinship ties, people there wanted to nominate me and I could feel success in my bones. Yet, the Egyptian Wafd refused to nominate me."
A second instance of an individual touting status and connections was very much in earnest. Abdel-Halim Elias Nasr, putting himself forward for the Atfih constituency, placed an announcement in Al-Ahram, citing his academic credentials and his services on behalf of the nation. However, the largest section of his advertisement was dedicated to boasting of the "esteem and admiration" that the "immortal leader Saad Zaghlul" had for him. He had presented the illustrious nationalist leader with a box containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, "the symbols of leadership, power and sacrifice, and the same gift offered by the wise men of the Orient to Jesus Christ". Nasr was convinced that gift meant more to the late leader than all greater honours bestowed upon him, as Zaghlul himself had said in a lengthy speech on one occasion.
The Wafd was to disappoint Nasr's faith that his gesture of dedication to Zaghlul would secure him a nomination on its ticket. He, therefore, nominated himself on the Wafd platform.
The candidates for the two other parties left in the arena -- the National Party and the Ittihad -- could not be said to have made up a coherent force. The Ittihad Party candidates, in particular, were counting on their wealth, family name and kinship affiliations. When Deputy Chief of the Royal Cabinet, Hassan Nashat, founded this party in 1925, he selected its leadership from the prominent rural families who felt that their extensive interests were best preserved under the royalist banner.
The independents were even a more disparate group. Among them were true independents, who had fielded themselves as such in previous elections and won. Others were Wafd members who had not been nominated by the Wafd and who were persuaded not to run as supporters of the Wafd platform. Yet others were Liberal Constitutionalists who had decided not to abide by their party's boycott.
"In deference to your wishes and convictions, and out of the concern for the welfare of the nation, the Wafd has nominated only the most capable and dedicated candidates." The Wafd statement was undoubtedly intended to caution its supporters against placing their trust in candidates whom it did not sponsor. Nevertheless, in some constituencies the Wafd did not field any candidates at all. Shortly after nominations closed, Al- Ahram reported that in Minya, independent candidate Dr Fouad Sultan Bek, director of the Bank of Egypt was uncontested. The same applied to Abdel-Aziz Pasha Seif El-Nasr, a Liberal Constitutionalist who ran as an independent in Mallawi. In Sanbo the field was limited to Ahmed Bek Qirshi, another Liberal Constitutionalist running as an independent, and George Pasha Wissa. Nor was there a Wafd presence in Juhayna in the Girga directorate and Khazam, Armant and Kiman Al-Mataana, all in the Qena directorate.
One of the rules of politics is that when questions of principle take the back seat in electoral campaigns the gangs come out in force. At least this is how contestants' rivalries played themselves out in some constituencies according to Al-Ahram's coverage of the campaign.
"The electoral battle and the battle of truncheons and bricks" read the headline to an article discussing the new view posited by some, that elections should be based around the natural divisions in society: the family, clan, tribe or similar local groupings. "This is why we frequently hear, 'Why should the candidate of such and such a constituency not be from the same constituency?' The very question reflects the absence of that national spirit the boundaries of which should embrace the entire nation, but are instead narrowed down to the village and then to the home. Indeed, on closer inspection of some attitudes, we find that the concept is reduced to a single individual, and this individual is the only factor that counts and on behalf of this factor all efforts and sacrifices should be consecrated."
The article proceeds to correct what it perceived to be a widespread attitude towards electoral campaigns. It was wrong to shunt aside rivalries in electoral political platforms on the grounds that they represented differences of opinion. There was no reason that such differences should occasion animosity, and certainly not to the point of brawls and murder. The very heart of the political process resided in differences in political creed and beliefs, and "the freedom to assert what is best for the nation on the basis of rational argumentation, not on the basis of sticks or bricks, or by knives and bullets".
One imagines this brief lecture was inspired by the prevalent belief that in the absence of any formidable competition people would loose interest in the elections. After all, in the absence of the Liberal Constitutionalists, the Wafdist candidates were obviously shoe-ins. This may have seemed the case, but a surprising development occurred.
Al-Ahram's correspondent in Sharqiya was the first to observe signs of the dissipation of the languor that characterised the start of the campaign. "It has come to light that rivals will enter the fray as independents, valiantly determined to defy all odds to win the honour of a parliamentary seat, and whose appeals are championed by many supporters. Electoral boards have been created in the district centres to regulate the polling activities. The competition is expected to be extremely tough."
Shortly afterwards Al-Ahram correspondents from other provincial capitals reported clashes between rival camps. In Mahallat Marhoum, Gharbiya, fighting broke out between the supporters of the Wafd candidate, Ahmed Hassan El-Harmil, and the National Party candidate, Mustafa El-Shorbagui. "Authorities in the district capital dispatched an armed police force, headed by the first precinct police commissioner in Tanta. In the ensuing confrontation a sergeant, corporal and three police conscripts received various non-critical injuries, as did some civilians."
In Sinbellawein, the newspaper's correspondent sided with "the peerlessly noble eminent notable Mustafa Fadel Bek" against the former parliamentary deputy of that constituency. The latter, Hussein Bek Fouda, whom voters never saw again after they elected him to the house, had circulated pamphlets "filled with vile personal aspersions and slander against Mustafa Bek, whom the people here attest is more patriotic than anyone else they know". The reporter continues, "The Saadiya Youth Committee has produced a report demonstrating that the former deputy attended a single parliamentary session and that parliamentary minutes contain nothing to indicate that there was a deputy from Sinbellawein in the house."
A similar case was reported from Derb Negm in Sharqiya, where the Wafd candidate was slandering his opponent from the Ittihad Party. Al-Ahram reports that some of the voters in that district vehemently refuted the Wafd candidate's claims, and one person wrote to the newspaper with "incontrovertible evidence" that the charges were false.
As familiar as such campaign squabbles were, it is interesting to note that they were largely restricted to the Delta. In Upper Egypt, in which kinship allegiances among large families held greater sway, it was generally preferred to agree upon a single candidate. Too often in the past, the costs of rivalries had proven too high for all concerned parties. For a similar reason, the majority of the candidates that went uncontested in their constituencies were from the countryside. In Cairo, for example, not a single candidate entered the race without an adversary, whereas most of the representatives from Upper Egypt entered parliament without having to pass through the ballot box.
If the burst of enthusiasm for the electoral campaigns was unexpected, the results came as no surprise. On 21 December, Al- Ahram announced that the Wafd swept 186 constituencies, the National Party won four and the Ittihad three. Independents fared slightly better than the latter two parties with 19 seats. Although a re-vote was called for 18 constituencies, it is difficult to imagine that the greater Egyptian public took great interest in their outcome. Once more in the post-constitutional elections the electorate had returned an overwhelming Wafdist majority.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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