12 - 18 September 2002
Issue No. 603
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Al-Ahram: A Diwanof contemporary life (459)
The 40th cabinetThe Mustafa El-Nahhas government that was elected into office at the beginning of 1930 was the 40th cabinet in Egyptian history. It was El-Nahhas' second cabinet and it lasted for less than seven months. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* explains why the cabinet's tenure was so short
One astute Al-Ahram reader in 1930 observed that the Mustafa El- Nahhas government that was elected into office at the beginning of that year was the 40th cabinet in Egyptian history. The reader was Mohamed Ali Abdel-Rahim, teacher in the Abu Qir Coast Guard School, who submitted to the newspaper a detailed list of Egyptian ministerial cabinets since 1878. Of these he noted that the shortest lived was the Fakhri Pasha government of 1893 and the longest was that of Mustafa Fahmi Pasha (1895-1908).
Apart from the significance of the number 40 in the Egyptian consciousness -- the dead are remembered 40 days after passing away -- this El-Nahhas government, his second, was peculiar for another reason. It lasted under seven months, which came as a surprise to many as it was the first government since 1924 to be formed from the party that always won landslide victories in parliamentary elections: the Wafd. In addition, in the period prior to this government there had been a marked shift in British policy toward Egypt, embodied in the new high commissioner for Egypt. Sir Percy Lorraine, reflecting the attitudes of the recently installed Liberal government in Britain, was resolved not to intervene in Egyptian domestic affairs except in the most limited possible scope.
It was not difficult to anticipate a new Wafdist government since the resignation of the Mohamed Mahmoud government on 3 October 1929. The subsequent government, headed by Adli Yakan, was expressly an interim government formed to initiate the arrangements for parliamentary elections and the restoration of constitutional life. In view of the Wafd's overwhelming popularity, it was naturally expected that the next government would easily fall into its lap, all the more so since its only serious rival, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, had boycotted the elections.
As long as this was the case, it followed that Wafd leader El- Nahhas would be called upon to form the new government. Foreign Office archives, however, relate a rather more complex story. Guided by the principle of divide and rule, the Wafd's adversaries attempted to deal with the large populist party as though it were composed of two wings: the "extremists", led by Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi, and the "moderates", led by Ali El-Shamsi. El-Nahhas and the party secretary, Makram Ebeid, were perceived as oscillating between the two, though they seemed more sympathetic with the "extremists".
In a confidential telegram to London on 6 December 1929, Lorraine reports that he had met King Fouad that day. As though probing for advice, the king had asked the high commissioner what his position would be if the Wafdists were divided in their selection of the new prime minister. Without hesitating, Lorraine responded that he would suggest El-Nahhas as long as he had the support of the majority. Resuming the issue at a later stage in the conversation, the king asked him what the case would be if El-Nahhas declined the position for political party considerations. Would Sir Lorraine then approve of Ali El-Shamsi? Lorraine relates that he responded in the affirmative, but with obvious lack of enthusiasm.
As was the custom of British representatives abroad, the conversation proved an occasion to attach to his report a brief biography of the person in question. Son of the late Amin El-Shamsi, Lorraine wrote, Ali El-Shamsi was born in 1887. Before the war he was a leader of the Nationalist Party and a disciple of its head, Mohamed Farid, although later he joined the party of the former khedive. In 1920, he wrote a number of articles and acted as an intermediary between Egyptian nationalists, the Young Turks and advocates of Pan-Arabism. At that time, he briefly took up residence in Naples where he engaged in arms smuggling to Egypt, although he returned to Geneva later that year to resume propagating the Egyptian nationalist cause.
El-Shamsi served as minister of finance for nine days, between 15 and 24 November 1924. The only task he undertook in that capacity was to pay LE500,000 in compensation for the assassination of the governor-general of Sudan, Sir Lee Stack. In 1926, he was elected to parliament as deputy for Al-Qanayat and assumed the Ministry of Education portfolio in June 1926 under the ensuing coalition government. "He is generally genial and has pursued a moderate approach in his politics. In addition, he has demonstrated a spirit of responsibility and independence of mind and he has become closely connected to Tharwat Pasha." Perhaps it was these characteristics that induced Mahmoud to ask him to join his cabinet after he suspended the constitution in 1928. In all events, the biography notes that El-Shamsi declined, preferring to retain his allegiance to the Wafd, even though his relations with "those close to the gang of extremists" remained tense.
Lorraine was determined to maintain his and his government's neutrality in the consultations over the composition of the next government to the extent that he scheduled a trip to Sudan during that period. As a result, the king backed down from his advocacy of El- Shamsi, who ended up paying the price.
Nevertheless, even with El-Nahhas as prime minister, as people not privy to the communications between the king and the high commissioner had expected, the cabinet that was announced in Al-Ahram of 2 January 1930 packed a couple of surprises. The first was that it included, as minister of transportation, El-Nuqrashi, the Wafdist hard-liner long opposed by the British for any government post due to his involvement in the assassination of Stack. The appointment seems to signify that the high commissioner remained true to his word and refrained from involving himself in the formation of the new cabinet, thereby removing one possible obstruction to the attempts of the "extremists" to manoeuvre themselves into power. The other possible obstacle was the palace, which evidently made no objections to this appointment, perhaps in the anticipation of rising tension between the Wafd and the high commissioner.
The second surprise was that El-Shamsi was not one of the cabinet appointees. That this raised not a few eyebrows is indicated in the Al-Ahram commentary: "Many have taken note of the fact that His Excellency Ali El-Shamsi is not among the members of the El-Nahhas government. It has been suggested that he will be appointed minister plenipotentiary in Paris when His Excellency Mahmoud Fakhri returns to Egypt. However, such reports have not exceeded the bounds of rumour."
But according to British documents the rumour had a solid foundation. El-Shamsi had indeed been offered the Paris posting, but turned it down. In all events, it appears that the Wafdist leadership had learned of Fouad's bid to bring in El-Shamsi instead of El-Nahhas and was not inclined to include someone in the cabinet who could possibly be closer to the palace than to the prime minister.
While adversaries of the new government perceived its sole function was to resume negotiations with the British where they had broken off several months earlier, Wafd leaders were keen to assert that theirs was a government that reflected the will of the people and that it had a far greater remit. El-Nahhas drove this point home in his response to the royal decree charging him with forming a government and outlining its objectives. He wrote: "The cabinet will submit its programme to parliament. Its primary objectives will be to reestablish the principles of the constitution, safeguard its provisions and steer the country towards reform in all aspects. It will also seek to realise the true independence of the nation, towards which end it will strive to reach an honourable and lasting agreement between Egypt and Britain and strengthen the bonds of friendship between Egypt and other foreign nations."
Inspired by this statement to the throne Al-Ahram dedicated its editorial that day to the new government's agenda. Defending El- Nahhas' pledge regarding the constitution, the editorial took issue with those who claimed that the Egyptian people were not yet sufficiently familiar with constitutional life. "This is an attitude we must not accept. Were we to grant them this claim, should they not ask, is it not right to forbid a child to walk because it stumbles? However, were we to do that, when would the child learn how to walk? If we never begin, how are we ever going to reach the end? When will we ever catch up with those nations that have preceded us? And, if we do not catch up, how will we ever be like them and share their progress?"
The newspaper also agreed that the government had a broader range of responsibilities than merely reaching an agreement with the British. Above all, it should institute reforms conducive to economic revival, especially in view of the global crisis precipitated by the stock market crash of 1929. In the opinion of the writer, the crisis was of a chronic nature, "emanating from the dire need for all means of economic production, in agriculture, industry, commerce and services, and also emanating from the growing needs of the populace. Increased need must be met with increased production."
Turning to the question of negotiations with the British towards an Anglo-Egyptian treaty, the editorial held that El-Nahhas wording in this regard did not imply rejecting the draft agreement that had been put before the government. "What it implies, rather, is the need to scrutinise the text of the agreement closely with an eye to the realisation of independence and to the conclusion of a truly honourable and lasting agreement." In other words, it was not the function of the new government simply to rubber-stamp the draft agreement that resulted from the negotiations between prime ministers Mahmoud and Henderson the previous year.
In spite of the 40th cabinet's perception of its duties, circumstances dictated that negotiations with the British remained its primary preoccupation. Lasting from 31 March to 8 May 1930, these negotiations absorbed about half of the second El-Nahhas government's short life.
On 3 February, the government asked parliament for a mandate to negotiate with the British. Three days later, parliament announced its approval for the formation of a negotiating delegation consisting of Prime Minister El-Nahhas, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wasef Ghali, Minister of Public Works Othman Muharram and Minister of Finance Makram Ebeid. British officials were dismayed by this composition. True, they had little to fear from the foreign minister whom they felt would simply go with the flow. Ebeid, however, was another matter. The high commissioner asked him how he stood on the financial agreements concluded between his government and the government of Mohamed Mahmoud in May 1929. At the time, Ebeid criticised the agreements vehemently. He posed a similar question to Muharram who had objected to the Nile Waters Agreement also concluded that year. Lorraine made it clear that he hoped both men would be more accommodating in the coming rounds of negotiations.
Apart from expressing these reservations, there was little the high commissioner could do with regard to the composition of the delegation. The four men concerned occupied the ministerial positions directly related to the subjects on the negotiating table.
Negotiations began at their appointed time and the beginnings seemed promising. The Egyptian team approved of the principle of an alliance with Britain. It also approved of another major British demand: the presence of a British military force in the Suez Canal. Initially, however, the Egyptians insisted that the force be stationed only on the eastern bank of the canal. After much wrangling, the Egyptians agreed to British forces on the western bank as well, on the condition that those forces be restricted to areas that were uninhabited or under cultivation.
The sticking point was Sudan. The Egyptian team objected that the wording of the articles in the agreement pertaining to this chronically thorny subject was too vague and non-committal. For example, the British pledged "to give sympathetic consideration to the return of a battalion of the Egyptian army to Sudan". Another article conferred upon Egyptians the right to emigrate or take up residence in Sudan, but only "in accordance with the provisions set by the Sudanese government for the benefit of the Sudanese people". When the British refused to budge over these formulas, the Egyptian team broke off negotiations and returned to Egypt.
Upon his return, El-Nahhas found himself embroiled in another battle, this time with the palace and the opposition parties, which held that the validity period of his government had ended, having failed to accomplish the task for which it was elected. Wafd leaders, however, stood their ground. Their government had been elected by the will of the people and no power could make them stand down; not the king, the opposition parties or even the British. Over the ensuing two-and-a-half months the various parties laid out their cards and weapons.
In spite of everything, the Wafdists were embarrassed by the breakdown in negotiations. In a confidential report to the Foreign Office on 17 May, Hoare, the chargé d'affaires for the high commissioner to Cairo, remarked that contrary to all other occasions when Anglo- Egyptian negotiating rounds failed, the Wafdist newspapers had not drummed up a campaign against the British. On the contrary, they appeared to dwell more on the possibilities of resuming negotiations again. In Hoare's opinion, the reason the Wafd leaders were being so moderate was that they wanted to neutralise the British in their forthcoming conflict with their domestic adversaries.
He goes on to write that the Wafd apparatus was mobilising the masses in order to caution its adversaries of the consequences of attempts to bring the downfall of its government. In this regard he remarked on the preparations that were under way for an enormous popular reception of the Wafd's negotiating delegation upon its return to Egypt. Pro- Wafdist provincial chiefs and municipal councils were energetically recruiting people to participate in the reception, he said.
The chargé d'affaires further noted that the Wafd was seeking to "clip the wings" of the king. Towards this end Wafd leaders were advancing a parliamentary bill calling for the prosecution of ministers who suspend the constitution or attempt to rescind or amend any of its provisions in an unconstitutional manner. The bill was designed to prevent Fouad from using ministers to abrogate the constitution, as he had done with Mohamed Mahmoud.
In a subsequent communication to the Foreign Office, Hoare refers to another Wafdist scheme to secure power. The "Wafdification" of the Egyptian government administration, he called it. When it came to power, the Wafdist government dismissed eight provincial directors and senior officials. Because of the anger this provoked among its adversaries, the Wafd was now resorting to a different tactic: "freezing out" non-Wafdist deputy ministers and assuming their duties.
The Wafd's most formidable rival, the Liberal Constitutionalists, felt the time was ripe for toppling the Wafd government. Only days after Anglo-Egyptian negotiations broke off, Liberal Constitutionalist leaders submitted a petition to the king questioning the parliamentary majority upon which the current government rested its legitimacy. "The parliamentary majority was elected for a specific purpose," the petition read, implying that it was no longer valid now that its government delegation failed in this purpose. It added that the rule of that government was beginning to encroach upon the principles of the constitution and law and "the simplest rules of justice", and urged the king to prevent further deterioration.
Simultaneously, the Liberal Constitutionalists attempted to secure the sympathies of the British high commissioner's office, as came to light in another confidential communication between Lorraine and the Foreign Office of 7 June. Lorraine listed three contacts made by officials from that party, the first being Abdel-Malak Hamza, who told officials in his office that when he was in London he had spoken with British MPs who were persuaded by "the injustice of handing over this wretched country (Egypt) to an unruly and uneducated democracy". The second was Suleiman Fawzi, publisher of Al- Kashkoul magazine, who complained to the British high commissioner's office of "the El-Nahhas dictatorship". The magazine owner had some grounds for his anger. Six people had recently been sentenced to six months in prison for voicing criticisms of El-Nahhas. The third contact was made by Hamed El-Alaili, who complained to the high commissioner's secretary of the Orient of a Wafdist demonstration during which protesters stoned his home.
However, the most determined to oust the 40th government was the king. In his report to London, Lorraine pointed out that Al-Ittihad, the mouthpiece of the pro-palace party, had unleashed a bitter campaign against the Wafd within only five days of the collapse of negotiations. In addition, Rector of Al-Azhar Sheikh El-Maraghi, known for his close connections to the palace, contacted the secretary to complain that Egypt was on the path to economic and administrative chaos. The religious official charged that the British were responsible for this state of affairs because their policy led to the creation of the El-Nahhas government. He warned that if the situation were not remedied violence could soon erupt.
The collision when it occurred revolved around two issues. The first entailed new senatorial appointees, and when the government submitted its nominees to the throne, as stipulated under the constitution, the throne did not respond. The second issue, not surprisingly, was the bill pertaining to the prosecution of ministers charged with abrogating the constitution. This, too, the cabinet had submitted to the palace, where it met the same fate as the document containing the senatorial nominees. Parliament was about to go on recess and El- Nahhas and his colleagues had no intention of deferring passage of the bill until parliament resumed several months later.
On 17 June, Al-Ahram reports that after holding several meetings on the draft law that was being held up in the palace, the cabinet adopted the following resolution:
"As the cabinet had pledged in its speech to the throne, delivered before parliament, to promulgate during this session the laws necessary to safeguard parliamentary life, it is committed to meeting its pledge. However, now that the current session of parliament is nearing its end and the cabinet was unable to fulfil its obligation, its members find that honour and dignity dictate that they can no longer remain in their current positions."
In Lorraine's opinion, El-Nahha's intention from this statement was not to resign but to pressure the palace. Al-Ahram bore out his suspicions as it reported that within hours after the statement was released Wafd supporters went into action. Demonstrations erupted in the capital and elsewhere in support of the El-Nahhas government, the most significant being a rally in front of parliament, although the newspaper admits that it was poorly attended. In addition, thousands of Egyptians wired telegrams to the king, petitioning him to respond to the cabinet's requests. More important was the parliamentary session of 17 June in which the members passed a vote of confidence in the government.
Nevertheless, as the Wafd was mobilising its forces for a mass demonstration to be held on Friday 20 June, Fouad seized the opportunity its leaders had presented him. On Thursday, 19 June, he announced that he had accepted the resignation and charged Ismail Sidqi with forming Egypt's 41st government. The ensuing Sidqi government would realise Egyptians' worst nightmares. It did not merely suspend the constitution that the El-Nahhas government had pledged itself to uphold; it abolished it entirely and replaced it with a new constitution that took the name of the new prime minister.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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