14 - 20 November 2002
Issue No. 612
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Al-Ahram: A Diwanof contemporary life (468)

The Sidqi constitution

Dr Yunan

In October 1930, Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi's government passed a new constitution that faced strong opposition from across the political spectrum. In this instalment of the Diwan Professor Yunan Labib Rizk gauges the various responses to the Sidqi constitution and Al-Ahram's curious bias in its favour

Click to view caption
The Parliament Building, 1933; Sidqi
Since the establishment of the first parliamentary body in Egypt in 1866, Egyptians have never referred to an organic law or a constitution by the name of an individual, however great or popular. The exception was what came to be known as the "Sidqi constitution" of 22 October 1930. Perhaps this was a way of expressing scorn for the reigning prime minister and rejection of the new constitution, founded on the ruins of the 1923 constitution under which the popular Wafd Party would always sweep into parliament with an overwhelming majority.

The new constitution emerged against the backdrop of a grim climate generated by the sudden resignation of the Mustafa El-Nahhas government on 19 June 1930. Deftly engineered by King Fouad, the resignation paved the way for the first Sidqi government, which was sworn in on the pledge that it was national rather than partisan in its affiliations. In fact, the new government was one hundred per cent pro-palace.

The new prime minister enjoyed unprecedented powers. He had the full backing of Abdin Palace while the British supported him implicitly. It was the British government's policy to remain neutral with respect to the new cabinet and not to intervene in Egypt's domestic affairs, declared the British High Commissioner, prompting most Egyptian newspapers, especially the Wafd Party mouthpieces, to scoff, "Since when?"

Thus emboldened, hardly had he come to power than Sidqi postponed parliament for two months. Drawing from recent experience, Egyptians were divided over what Sidqi would do next. Would he allow parliament to reconvene after the two months were over or would he resort to delaying tactics as occurred under the Ziwar government (1924-1926)? Or, would he dismiss parliament, as King Fouad had done in 1924, 1925, 1928 and 1930, or suspend it for a stipulated period, as occurred under the "iron grip" government of Mohamed Mahmoud (1928-1929)?

Sidqi did none of the above. He was aware that Egyptians had built up defences against such ready-to-hand solutions. However, as he realised that his solution would come as a considerable shock to the Egyptian people, he presented it in small doses over a period of four months. Conveniently, this period coincided with parliament's summer recess.

The first dose was administered in the form of a denial of reports in the London press that the Egyptian government intended to amend the constitution so as to guarantee "monarchists" a permanent majority in the house. An Al-Ahram editorial -- "The eternal constitution and the amendment rumour" -- was in response to the rumour. The notion of monarchists was ludicrous since there were no "republicans" in Egypt to begin with. The antithesis simply did not exist "for all Egyptians believe in the constitution and its stipulation that Egypt is a hereditary monarchy with a parliamentary form of government". The editorial concluded, "No one believes the rumour story about tampering with the constitution. It is too absurd and as remote as can be from the mind of any Egyptian whatsoever."

Two months later, in mid-October, the Sidqi government announced that it intended to amend, not the constitution, but the electoral law. There was nothing in that announcement to provoke alarm. Most governments that had come into being since the 1923 Constitution came into effect had made such attempts, although the motives varied. Wafdist parliaments had always sought to institute a direct ballot, instead of the two phase process involving the election of an electoral college stipulated in the constitution, whereas adversaries of the Wafd had always pursued amendments that would reduce the chances of that party and maximise their own.

But, perhaps on 13 October Al-Ahram readers observed that the proposed amendments were rather extensive. It called for the reduction of members of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate to 150 and 100, respectively, and the increase in the number of appointees in the senate to three-fifths. It further provided that the terms of the two houses of parliament, as well as the all the municipal councils should end simultaneously, that the government was responsible only before the senate and that all disputes over parliamentary elections would be brought before a non-parliamentary committee. Finally, it abolished the automatic victory of uncontested candidates, stating that in constituencies in which only one candidate is fielded that candidate "must present himself in the polls on the appointed day and his election is only valid in the event he obtains a quarter of the eligible votes of his constituency. Should he fail to obtain that quota, a second ballot will be held in that constituency, at which point any number of votes that candidate obtains shall be sufficient to qualify him for victory."

Perhaps, too, readers would have remarked on the praise in the British press for the amendments. The Daily Telegraph commented that reducing the number of members of parliament would ensure a high intellectual and moral tenor among the representatives of the people, for "Egypt has been home to too many political adventurers and position-seekers in recent years." The newspaper welcomed raising the number of senate appointees as "a means to ensure that the members of this body are of enlightened, clear-thinking minds, of broad expertise and fully dedicated to serving the interests of the country. The senate will thus consist of men who have excelled in political and administrative affairs and who have obtained special qualifications that render them a body whose motto is wisdom, knowledge and integrity, and, therefore, a factor that can restrain the party of feuds and enmities."

With such enthusiasm displayed in the British press for such far- reaching amendments, Wafd leaders could only draw the obvious conclusion. As its Secretary-General Makram Ebeid put it, the changes to the electoral law were so sweeping as to "demolish the foundations of the Egyptian constitution and parliamentary life". The Wafd leader elucidates, the proposed amendments "ultimately place parliamentary legislation in the hands of the king and his ministers. Moreover, it will allow the government senate to dismiss a cabinet founded upon a majority in parliament at any time." He continues, "To reduce the number of members of parliament is a flagrant violation of the constitution, the purpose of which is obvious. The cabinet and its supporters could never find 235 candidates to compete with the candidates of the Wafd." The purpose of retaining the two-tiered balloting process was also readily apparent. "It reduces the number of direct voters to a few hundred. As the government issues the electoral lists, it is in a position to control the elections and open the doors to coercion and bribes."

Little did Makram Ebeid, along with most Egyptians, expect what was really coming. On 23 October 1930 Al-Ahram's front-page headline blazoned: "The new Egyptian constitution: Government memorandum on amended provisions and the reasons for the amendments."

Because the authors of the new (rather than amended) constitution feared the popular reaction, they took precautions. The army and police were placed on alert -- "in anticipation of possible developments". Forces were also deployed in police departments in Cairo, Alexandria and other large cities and provincial centres. "Yesterday, forces were sent in to supplement those stationed in the parliament building and the railway authority ordered all armed trains to be on the ready and to prepare them for operation. Thirty trains were brought out of depot while armed forces were increased in all railway stations."

If Prime Minister Sidqi and King Fouad thought all they had to contend with was the Wafd, which was already a considerable force, they were mistaken. The Liberal Constitutionalists joined forces with the Wafdists, which meant that the overwhelming portion of public opinion was rallied against the proposed constitution. On 21 October the central committee of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party issued a resolution stating: "The party has done all in its power to prevent the government from tampering with the foundations of the constitution. In spite of the modifications in the government's opinions, those it still adheres to defy the authority of the people, paralyze the functions of parliament and void parliamentary life of its most important powers. Therefore, the party declares its regret for the determination of the government to press ahead with the promulgation of a new constitution, an action which is impossible to support."

Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist leaders were not overreacting. The memorandum referred to above opened with a critique of the 1923 Constitution, which, it charged was completely divorced from the past. Apart from preserving the two-tiered balloting system, the constitution brought into being a system that "bears no relationship or semblance to the Legislative Assembly or to the Consultative Council and General Assembly system that preceded it". Rather, it was modelled on the Belgian constitution which, like other European constitutions, did not attain its present form overnight, but instead evolved over a period of time in accordance with economic and social developments. Such developments necessitated change "that was sometimes effected by overturning the constitution and promulgating a new one and at other times by the means designated by the constitution itself".

The memorandum went on to contend that direct elections, even to its advocates, were only one form of government. This system, too, was the product of social developments in Europe that rendered it "a vital and integral part of the parliamentary systems there". However, it added, "opinion is still at odds over this system. Many who have addressed the crisis of parliamentary systems have argued in favour of a two-tiered ballot, likening it to a filter that provides purer and clearer water without changing the source of that water."

In justification of reducing the number of representatives in the Chamber of Deputies from 235 to 150, the memorandum argued that the old Consultative Council and the Legislative Assembly had no more than 30 and 83 members respectively. "No one had ever objected that such numbers were too small. Indeed, it is a well known principle in sociology, borne out in practice in large assemblies, that the larger the number of members the less productive are discussions and the weaker are autonomy and maturity of opinion."

Also in justification of a smaller parliament, the memorandum asserted that the predominant homogeneity among Egyptians in their ways of life, their few areas of difference and their degree of political upbringing meant that far few members were necessary "to fulfil all the needs of representation in the house". It added, "Indeed, the smaller number of parliamentary representatives that will be elected from larger constituencies will be inherently of higher calibre and more dependable than the average deputy today."

Not a small portion of the memorandum was devoted to the senate. The worst shortcoming of parliamentary systems was that "they make politics a trade that can be professed by many individuals who are not of the first order. If this is not avoidable in view of the need of such like to create the rank and file of political parties, what is needed to rectify political performance in this country is to ensure that alongside these individuals there exist those whose social stature or previous service enable them to remain fully or partially independent of the parties. Yet, many of the latter recoil from the turmoil of elections, which is why many countries open to them the doors to the senate."

By raising the number of senate appointees to three-fifths, the Sidqi government clearly intended to fling open the doors as far as it could. However, the memorandum was quick to reassure the public that this measure "will not diminish the power of the senate or detract from the meaning of representation it embraces". So the claim went, but in effect the amendment intended to revoke a principle established under the 1923 constitution, which was that the power of the king to appoint senate members was exercised by the members of his government. The Sidqi government argued that restricting the process of senate appointments to "the royal will, alone", would eliminate an undesirable situation that had arisen under the previous constitution. Government intervention in senatorial appointments had transformed the process into a partisan matter, rendering the senate an "inoperable tool", the memorandum argued. By restoring the prerogative to the king, the senate would become "a place for persons of excellence whom the king can perceive by virtue of his impartiality and his embodiment of the principles of secure and stable government".

Change extended to the length of parliamentary sessions, reducing it from the six months stipulated under the 1923 Constitution to five. Even that, the memorandum maintained, was more than necessary to fulfil the needs of the nation, given that parliamentary sessions in other countries were only four months. The new sessions, it continued, would begin on the third Saturday of December and end in the last half of May. "This latter date conforms to the need of members of parliament to devote time to their own affairs and to the need of government officials to focus on the budget."

Further confirming its autocratic character, the Sidqi constitution reinstated the king's exclusive right to appoint Muslim religious officials, foremost among whom were the rector of Al-Azhar, the sheikhs of the four schools of Sunni fiqh, the chief master of the Sufi orders and the head of Al-Ashraf (the descendants of the Prophet). In 1927, a law was introduced whereby this royal prerogative was delegated to the cabinet. In justification of this move, it was argued that the prime minister could be a non-Muslim, in which case it would be inappropriate to vest him with the authority to appoint the highest Muslim religious officials in a country in which Islam was the official religion.

Naturally stunned by the government memorandum the public awaited the next steps which were soon forthcoming. On 24 October 1930, Al-Ahram announced "Royal edict 70 for 1930 for a constitution for the state of Egypt". The following day it published Electoral Law 38 for the same year. Nevertheless, in putting this into effect Sidqi would encounter a number of obstacles.

Firstly, he had to contend with the Wafd, with its vast capacities to mobilise the Egyptian public. To confront the spectre of mass demonstrations Sidqi took security precautions unprecedented since the 1919 Revolution.

He turned his attention firstly to students, the Wafd's "army" which it could speedily mobilise at critical moments, and announced that the government would rigidly enforce the executive decision of 1927. This stated, "Any student who participates in politics, whether through writing, publication, membership in student societies, demonstrations or political parties, shall be expelled for the period of a year. Every student who incites others into engaging in any of the aforementioned actions shall be expelled from school, barred from the examinations and blacklisted from all other schools."

He then went on to secure the streets. Mounted police were stationed in all public squares and guards were stationed throughout the capital and ordered to maintain contact with police stations and precincts. The newspaper adds that soldiers wore helmets to protect themselves from hurling stones. Also in Cairo, vehicles carrying soldiers armed with truncheons and rifles patrolled the streets. "They are instructed, in the event of a demonstration, to order demonstrators to disperse. If they refuse this order, the soldiers are to disperse them using truncheons. Acts of destruction, attack on property and other such actions are to be countered by gunfire."

In addition, two army battalions were dispatched to Alexandria, supplemented by the second infantry battalion stationed in Sidi Bishr and deployed in all the main squares and streets. In the city centre, reinforcements were stationed around the Egyptian and British telegraph offices, the electricity company and the power generating station for the tramway. Similar security precautions were undertaken in Tanta, Zaqaziq and Benha where trucks bristling with armed and helmeted soldiers rumbled through the streets in order to intimidate potential protesters.

It appeared as though the Sidqi government had declared war on the Egyptian people. In the face of such circumstances, the Wafd had recourse to little else but the party's newspapers -- Al-Balagh, Al-Diaa and Kawkab Al-Sharq -- which unleashed vehement campaigns against the new constitution.

Sidqi also had to contend with the Liberal Constitutionalists, which presented a different situation. Initially, Sidqi was certain that this party would side with him. He had been a member until he formed the government and two members in his cabinet were party members. More importantly, he believed, the Liberal Constitutionalists would have been particularly keen on seeing the end of the old constitution which guaranteed such sweeping majorities for the Wafd. Certainly, he thought, his government and the Liberal Constitutionalists would be united in their shared adversity towards the Wafd, a sentiment that inspired all the changes that were introduced into the new constitution. Yet, contrary to Sidqi's plans, the central committee of his former party issued a statement condemning the new constitution.

Dealing with the Liberal Constitutionalists also necessitated different tactics. Since the party had no real power to move the streets, Sidqi attempted to sew discord between its members. The party leader Mohamed Mahmoud had pressed for the rejection of the new constitution because he was jealous of Sidqi, the prime minister claimed. In response, Mahmoud declared that he would rather die before he felt an ounce of envy for a person such as Sidqi. Sidqi also reminded party members that Mahmoud himself had suspended the constitution during his term as prime minister. Mahmoud countered that his reason for doing so was to give the country the opportunity to set its affairs in order in a manner that would help it reach a level of political maturity that would allow the constitution to be implemented as it was meant to be. Tensions in the party mounted over the following weeks after Sidqi succeeded in inducing several Liberal Constitutional Party members to protest the decision taken by their central committee on the grounds that a decision of such importance should have required a meeting of the general assembly.

Thirdly, there was the Nationalist Party to deal with. On the same day the new constitution was announced, this party issued a statement condemning it and declaring, "The government does not have the authority to modify or alter the provisions of the constitution and it shall be held accountable for its actions. As this party has said many times before, the chaos and meddling that resurface from time to time emanate from the desire to divert the efforts of the nation from its higher goal, which is to fight the occupation, the root ailment and the source of all calamities." Nevertheless, as the Nationalist Party was now so marginal Sidqi paid little heed to it.

Curiously, Al-Ahram, which reported all these developments, came out in favour of the Sidqi constitution, which in turn brought it under violent attack from Wafdist newspapers. The newspaper displayed its bias in the form of the extensive space it allocated to the criticisms aired by Liberal Constitutionalist members against their central committee. That this coverage conveyed the impression that the party rank and file had turned against its leadership fitted Sidqi's designs perfectly.

Al-Ahram's position was also apparent in the amount of space it gave to commentaries and studies in support of the new constitution. Among these were "Ideas and comparisons between the constitutions of 1923 and 1930" by someone it described as "a great writer and accomplished lawyer", and "An examination of the new constitution and electoral law", by a writer the newspaper described as "a practicing legal scholar". Both studies were serialised over several editions, alongside other articles that conveyed support for the government and its new constitution. Yet, if Al-Ahram hoped such coverage would win the public over to its slant, it was mistaken. The greater public continued to reject the Sidqi constitution, for which reason it was not destined to live long.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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