Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (476)
Covenant and the nation
Twice in their history did the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalist, Egypt's two most powerful and adversarial political parties in the 1930s, join forces. The first was when they conspired to bring the downfall of the Ziwar government. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* describes the second occasion, in 1931, during which these strange bedfellows had an unexpected alliance
On 31 March 1931, the two most powerful political parties in Egypt at the time, the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalist, reached what they termed, "a covenant with God and the nation" in accordance with which they pledged to boycott the forthcoming parliamentary elections. These elections were to be held under the new constitution promulgated by the Ismail Sidqi government several months earlier and condemned by all political forces with the exception of the two pro-palace parties, the Ittihad and the Shaab. The Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist further pledged to restore what they regarded as the legitimate constitution under which the majority party assumes power; and to rally support towards this end they intended to tour the various provinces and hold conventions there.
This was the second time in which the two mutually antagonistic parties had joined forces against a cabinet and system of government backed by the king. The first was in 1926 when they allied to topple the Ziwar government and then formed a coalition government headed by Adli Yakan. Their success ushered in a brief phase in which they co-operated in two more coalition governments, the first headed by Abdel- Khaleq Tharwat and the second by Mustafa El-Nahhas. In 1928, the palace conspired with, among others, Mohamed Mahmoud, head of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, to bring down the El-Nahhas government and replace it with a cabinet headed by Mahmoud. The Wafd learned a bitter lesson from the experience: never to participate in another coalition government regardless of the advantages that appeared on the surface. Mahmoud drove the lesson home more forcefully when he suspended the constitution for the next three years and instituted his government of the "iron grip".
The next two years brought the fall of the Mahmoud government, the fall of the second El-Nahhas government following the collapse of negotiations with the British secretary of the Foreign Office and then the rise of the Sidqi government on the ruins.
The Wafd's animosity towards Sidqi was natural. Sidqi was very much the king's man. When El-Nahhas tendered his resignation in a bid to force the palace to capitulate to Wafdist demands, Sidqi was on hand to form a new government after the king called El-Nahhas's bluff. Then, once in power, Sidqi proceeded with relentless determination to clip the Wafd's wings. He dissolved the parliament with its overwhelming Wafdist majority, rescinded the 1923 constitution and introduced another one tailor-made to enhance the powers of the king and, simultaneously, to minimise the prospects of Wafd candidates in parliamentary elections. He then founded a new political party, the raison d'être of which was its animosity towards the Wafd.
Sidqi and King Fouad were of course more disturbed by the opposition of the Liberal Constitutionalists. They had plenty of cause to be taken aback. The Liberal Constitutionalists had a long-standing animosity towards the Wafd and was the only political party capable of holding its own against the large populist party. In addition, Prime Minister Sidqi had been a Liberal Constitutionalist, only resigning when charged by the king to form a cabinet. Finally, the Liberal Constitutionalists had no greater fondness for the 1923 constitution than Sidqi. If the latter introduced a new constitution to replace it, the Liberal Constitutionalists suspended it entirely under Mahmoud's government.
Nevertheless, it would not be so easy for the two major parties to join forces once again to bring down the royalist government, as they had in 1926. This time, the initiative came from the Liberal Constitutionalists. In his unique The Liberal Constitutionalist Party: 1922-1952, Ahmed Zakariya El- Shalaq relates that Kamel Abdel-Rahim, Mohamed Mahmoud's secretary, secretly approached the Wafd through one of its central figures, Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi, who was also a friend of his. However, Wafd chief Mustafa El-Nahhas rejected the overture. The Wafd also remained mute when Al- Siyasa, the Liberal Constitutionalist mouthpiece, cried out in defence of freedom of the press following the Sidqi government's suspension of Wafd Party newspapers.
The Wafd's snub of the hand the Liberal Constitutionalists extended was indicative of its lasting mistrust of a party that had burnt its fingers once before. However, subsequent developments would inevitably force the parties together regardless of their history of mutual acrimony. Above all, Sidqi's policies appeared specifically tailored to check the Wafd and its supporters, as was manifested in several confrontations throughout the country.
The first took place in the winter of 1930-31 when village mayors and elders who were Wafd supporters tendered their resignations en masse in protest against a decision taken by the Sidqi government to include their names in the new electoral lists that were being drawn up under the new constitution. The following statement issued by the Ministry of Interior and published in Al-Ahram on 9 January 1931 offers a closer look at the nature of this incident:
"Some newspapers published a telegram said to be written by a group of mayors and elders from the villages in Maghagha, announcing their resignations from their positions as chairmen and members of electoral boards in their districts. It has come to light that all of those who resigned, with the exception of the mayor of Nazlat Beni Khalaf, were not members of the boards in charge of redrawing the electoral lists. The mayor mentioned above had completed the major portion of his work on his board before resigning. Three mayors had been suspended from their posts pending litigation against them before they resigned, two others were being considered for dismissal and the remainder are the subject of disciplinary measures for various acts of remiss in their duties. Finally, two mayors whose names are said to have appeared on the telegram denied ever having signed it and officially notified the Minya provincial directorate authorities of this fact."
Naturally, many suspected the statement was a ruse to discredit the protesters, but not all. Indeed, some government supporters were so outraged by the mayors' actions that they suggested that the mayoral system be abolished altogether and police officers appointed in their stead. This opinion was voiced in a letter to Al-Ahram of 28 January, which suggested that "the country should be divided into police zones, the officials of which would be responsible for public security and directly answerable to the pertinent authorities".
In a show of his popular strength, Wafd leader Mustafa El- Nahhas appeared for Friday prayers in various mosques several weeks in succession amidst cheers to the long life of "His Excellency" and political slogans. The Sidqi government regarded these visits, which took place in Al-Kikhya on 12 December, in Imam Al-Shafie the following week and in Al-Hussein on 2 January, as subversive and issued a statement condemning them. The statement said that the individuals who were on hand to cry out chants had never been regular mosque-goers and that their presence on these occasions had been pre-arranged for the purpose of public agitation. Some of the individuals had been arrested and prosecuted on the charge of violating the sanctity of religious rituals. The statement went on to caution El- Nahhas to limit his visits to mosques solely for the purpose of "spiritual uplifting and moral edification, as is the custom of Muslims in all Islamic countries".
The government also took harsh action against the pro-Wafdist protest demonstrations that erupted in various parts of the country. The protests were quickly suppressed and protesters brought to trial on various charges. Commenting on such incidents in Mansura, the pro- government Ittihad newspaper proclaimed that the prosecutions of the "deluded youths" were not enough.
While government repression drove the Wafd to reconsider its position towards the Liberal Constitutionalist, the latter party in turn grew increasingly determined to conclude a pact with the Wafd. Signalling this determination was its decision to openly declare the withdrawal of its support from the government, which it did in an announcement issued by Mohamed Mahmoud on 21 October 1931. Strengthening its resolve were Sidqi's attempts to split Liberal Constitutionalist ranks by inviting its members to join the People's Party which he created the following month. Mahmoud and his supporters did not have kind words for Sidqi's creation, which they variously dubbed "the party of despair", "the party of the frail" and "the party of personal interests". It was then the turn of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party's mouthpiece to feel Sidqi's heavy hand. Al-Siyasa, at the time, was one of Egypt's widest circulating newspapers. In response, Al-Siyasa's editor-in-chief, Taha Hussein, along with two other prominent figures in Egyptian literature, El-Mazni and Annan, published Egyptian Politics and the Constitutional Coup, which Ahmed Zakariya describes as having listed every single opponent to the government. The authors published 10,000 copies of this work, which the government confiscated but later released.
Developments thus conspired to drive the two parties into each other's embrace. On 5 April 1931, the front page of Al-Ahram was unusually packed with photographs. Under the headline, "Top leaders of the Egyptian Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalist at a tea party hosted by His Excellency Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha", appeared a large picture of El-Nahhas and Mahmoud emerging from the latter's home after the tea party. It was flanked on either side by four smaller photographs of other guests: Hamad El-Basel, Wisa Wassef, Mohamed Ali and Mohamed Naguib El-Gharabli.
The occasion was the first manifestation of the "covenant with God and the nation" announced several days earlier, as was evidenced in the speeches delivered by Mahmoud and El-Nahhas. The Liberal Constitutionalist leader declared that the covenant expressed the "unanimity of the nation over the question of Egyptian independence and the need to sign with Britain an agreement over which an understanding has been reached". More germane to domestic politics, it expressed the unanimity of the nation over the sovereignty of the people "in the manner established under the constitution of 1923 and within the framework of proper parliamentary traditions which guarantee justice, freedom and equality to all people regardless of their beliefs and class affiliations". He concluded by describing the alliance between the two parties as "a sacred unity".
El-Nahhas echoed these themes, laying great emphasis on the constitution, "which we obtained through the blood of our children and the struggle of our elderly and our women". The government was now "venting its full anger on the constitution and is punishing us for not having used it as a game to amuse us rather than having striven to safeguard it as the fruit of our efforts and manifestation of the dignity of our nation". Finally, he said that the next arena of battle between the allied parties and the government would be in Beni Suef, which Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist leaders would visit in response to Sidqi's recent visit to that city, which had taken place "while government weapons were trained upon the nation".
On 7 April, Al-Ahram's banner headlines read: "Wafdists and Liberal Constitutionalists go to Beni Suef. They are barred from entering the city. They return to capital after 12- hour wait in train station." The newspaper relates that, at 8.30am on 5 April, the parties' leaders left Cairo on the southward bound train. "Upon boarding the train, passengers hailed them with loud cheers and applause. The train left on schedule from Cairo station while large police and army forces took up positions in the train stations and agricultural roads en route in order to keep the public away from the stations and the railroad tracks. This measure, however, failed to prevent people from saluting the leaders in the train as it passed. From our windows we saw in the near distance automobiles filled with passengers cheering, banners fluttering atop village houses and people clustered on balconies and rooftops, and we could hear the sound of women ululating."
Amidst the jubilation, travellers were unaware of the surprises Sidqi had in store for them around the corner. The first was that the train did not make its scheduled stops in Giza and Al-Wasta stations. And it was moving at such a slow pace that it arrived in Beni Suef far behind schedule, at 11.00. When the train pulled into Beni Suef, the train station was eerily devoid of life. Al-Ahram's reporter on board recounts, "There was not a soul in the station to receive us. But we did see the cavalry and their officers and army and police officers standing in file and bearing arms. Close to the station, hundreds of soldiers were deployed."
When the two party leaders approached the exit, the police commissioner of Beni Suef informed them that he had instructions to prevent them and those with them from leaving the station. El-Nahhas responded that since his group was unarmed there was no reason the forces should enter the train station, after which the party leaders and their companions "took seats on the station benches, partook of sandwiches, fruit, tea and coffee, and conversed on various subjects".
Nor would the party leaders have expected the other security precautions the government took. Incoming trains were prevented from making their scheduled stops in the station and had to let passengers off further down the line. Telegraph personnel in the station were instructed not to allow outgoing messages, although incoming telegraphs were permitted. Some of these were letters of support addressed to El- Nahhas. The public telephones in the station were also off limits. Al-Ahram relates, "A relative of Fakhri Bek Abdel- Nur wanted to speak with him from Girga in order to reassure himself of Abdel-Nur's well-being. The telephone operator informed Abdel-Nur of this, but could not grant him permission to speak with his relative. Abdel-Nur asked the operator to tell the speaker about the ban on the use of the phone and to reassure him of his well-being. The door to the telephone office was locked with guards posted in front of it to prevent people from approaching."
The rest of the story was related in an official Ministry of Interior statement. The political leaders in Beni Suef had been given three opportunities to return to Cairo aboard trains departing from Beni Suef between 12.00 and 7.30 that day but they refused. They were then offered a private train which they also refused, "preferring instead to remain rooted in their place on the platform of Beni Suef train station and to dispatch a telegram to the prime minister informing him of their decision not to leave until they were granted permission to enter the city".
The statement continued, "El- Nahhas and 75 people accompanying him were prohibited by government decree from entering Beni Suef while their indefinite stay in the station obstructed the movement of vehicles of transportation and was, therefore, harmful to the public welfare. At the same time, His Excellency El-Nahhas Pasha and those with him were given sufficient time to contemplate how to extricate themselves from the position they put themselves in, especially as they had no excuse for not returning to the capital on their own volition. In light of the foregoing, the government had no alternative but to take measures to bring an end to this situation. It, therefore, issued instructions for a private train to be made ready and to invite the gentlemen mentioned above to board it peacefully, for if not they would be compelled to do so by force. The instructions were implemented at 10.30pm and the gentlemen boarded the train without resistance and returned to the capital."
The events in Beni Suef had repercussions on several levels. The British reaction betrayed the sympathies of the colonial authorities for the Sidqi government. Commentaries in the British press were sarcastic. Headlines in the London Times read: "The Wafd goes on a picnic. A comedy in the Egyptian countryside. The pashas on a rustic excursion in Beni Suef". The Daily Telegraph: "Wafd leaders perform a farce on the railway." The Daily News Chronicle: "Soldiers block the way. Sixty politicians waste a day." The Daily Mail: "The revolutionaries' rural outing. Provincial director offers sandwiches to the men from the Wafd." The Morning Post confined itself to the briefest headline: "The death of the Wafd". The Daily Express reported the day's events under the headline: "Comedy of Egyptian politicians on a country excursion."
Perhaps, African World was the only periodical to adopt a serious tone. The covenant between the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist parties, it wrote, aimed "to rescind the new constitution and topple the government by suggesting to the electorate that they would conclude a treaty with Britain". It continued, "They believed their actions would compel British politicians to lend a hand in restoring the old constitution which put the Egyptian people at the mercy of a handful of politicians who single-handedly undermined themselves. The purpose of the visit to Beni Suef was to demonstrate the power and influence of the Wafd. The result was the opposite to what they wanted and an indication of the decline in the Wafd's prestige and sway."
The encounter at Beni Suef worked to strengthen the alliance between the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalist parties, their leaders having realised that they had to work closer together to counter the pressure from the Sidqi government. Al-Ahram reports on a meeting between the parties' leaders to discuss the current situation and to work out a programme for political tours to the provinces of Upper Egypt. A subsequent news item relates that the two parties created a joint "communications committee", consisting of Fathallah Barakat and Makram Ebeid of the Wafd and Mohamed Ali and Mohamed Hussein Heikal of the Liberal Constitutionalist. The committee would examine ways of broadening the realm of co- operation between the two parties, the newspaper wrote, adding, "The Wafdists and Liberal Constitutionalists are determined to tour the countryside, although the planning of these visits will not necessarily be scheduled and implemented in the manner of the visit to Beni Suef. Rather, separate plans and procedures will be drawn up for each visit."
Closer relations between the two parties evinced itself in the form of political rallies, one of which took the form of a tea party hosted by the Wafd on 17 April in honour of the Liberal Constitutionalists. Al-Ahram reports that in an exchange of speeches, the party leaders re-affirmed their resolve to press ahead in their fight against the Sidqi government and its designs.
Their adversaries, the prime minister and the king, countered with tours of their own of the provinces. Sidqi's tour of the Canal zone and Daqahliya ended in violent clashes between demonstrators and police. Fouad toured Al-Gharbiya where his reception was lukewarm at best, judging by Al- Ahram's coverage of the visit.
British commentators were not the only writers to bring a sense of humour to the incident at Beni Suef. Indeed, perhaps the final word on the subject is best left to Al-Ahram's "prince of wit", Fikri Abaza, who described the engagement of forces as follows. On one side was Sidqi, "with his forces of government soldiers, sergeants, lieutenants, commanders and generals deployed inside the railway station and around that station in the streets, colonnades and alleyways of the city and on the railway crossings and around the houses, with tents in which to eat or orate". On the other side were "their Excellencies El- Nahhas Pasha and Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha inside the station, with the officers and commanders of the nation entrenched in the barracks". Abaza continues, "His Excellency the Prime Minister glared at their excellencies El-Nahhas and Mahmoud who glared back for roughly 14 hours. Finally, the battle of flint-sharp stares came to an end when on one side the trumpet sounded ordering the government soldiers and officers to retreat and, on the other side, the trumpet sounded ordering the nationalist camp to retreat as well. As for ourselves, we remain scrupulously neutral."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.