Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (522)
Shot in Badari
The shooting of a district police chief in Egypt in 1932 made news, but not just on the crime pages. Not only did an appeals court overturn a death sentence handed down to one of the assailants but, at a level extraordinarily extreme, the political climate was such that the prime minister was ultimately forced to form a new cabinet. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* writes on the huge repercussions that followed a cold-blooded murder
In the escalating conflict between the autocratic government of Ismail Sidqi, backed by the palace, and the nationalist movement led by the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist Party, administrative officials were crucial weapons in the hands of the former camp. Sidqi had long since ousted officials known for their pro-Wafd sympathies and appointed others, not only loyal to him, but frequently so zealous in their loyalty that they had little compunction at using extreme measures to impose the government's authority. It was because the Badari case took place against this backdrop that the reaction it triggered succeeded in so shaking the government that Sidqi was heading.
On Saturday evening, 19 March 1932, in Badari in the Assiout directorate, district police chief Youssef El-Shafie was being escorted home by Fahim Nassif, an irrigation engineer whose home El-Shafie had just visited. As the two drew near Badari Primary School, two young men who had been hiding behind the school wall opened fire on them, killing El-Shafie and wounding Nassif.
The assailants were arrested that evening, having been spotted by passersby as they fled to hiding in a nearby field. Both were young men from the village: Ahmed Gaidi Abdel-Haqq, 23, a former student in a vocational training school but currently working on his father's farm, and Hassan Ahmed Abu Ashour, a farmer, aged 25.
Although Al-Ahram described the incident as a "heinous crime", like most Egyptians, the newspaper regarded it as yet another of those rural vendettas for which Upper Egypt, in particular, had become notorious. Still, the newspaper supplied readers with intermittent reports until the court passed judgement on 21 June ruling the two assailants guilty of premeditated murder. Abdel-Haqq was sentenced to death and Abu Ashour to life imprisonment with hard labour.
Al-Ahram readers were certain that this would be the last they heard of the case. Even when they learned that the defence attorneys, Morqos Fahmi and Ibrahim Mumtaz, filed an appeal, they believed the result would be a foregone conclusion.
To everyone's surprise, however, the Court of Appeals overturned the verdict. According to the presiding judge, Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, the charge of premeditated murder was unfounded. "There is evidence that the victim, the police chief, had inflicted cruel and prohibited punishment on the appellant every evening when the latter was previously in custody," he argued. "This treatment was of the nature to render the assailant mentally unstable and in such a permanent state of agitation as to obviate reasoned thinking, which is an essential condition for premeditation. The Criminal Court has, therefore, erred in the application of the law, having relied in its verdict on a non-existent condition. It has also erred in regarding the criminal acts perpetrated by the police chief as being consistent with the performance of his duties."
The appeals court judge proceeded to delineate those "criminal acts", based on the testimony of the mayor of Badari, Mohamed Nassar. The mayor had recounted that the police chief had compelled the appellants to spend the night in the police station and that while they were asleep he would have the policemen offend and degrade them. "When the mayor was asked to describe the nature of the offences, he responded that they were very serious. When pressed further, he said, 'I heard that the police chief had ordered his men to cut off their mustaches. He then had some rope brought in with which he had his men fashion bridles which they affixed to the prisoners.'" In his testimony, the mayor went on to describe what happened once his prisoners were bound in bridles. "The police chief would jeer, 'Look at how the donkey kicks!' He would also force them to say, 'I'm a woman,' and if they refused he would take a stick and poke them in the..." When the court asked the mayor what further offences the police chief committed, he responded, "Could there be worse than poking a man in the..., cutting off his mustache and putting him in a donkey bridle?"
Abdel-Aziz Fahmi continued, "The treatment that the court has demonstrated that the victim had inflicted on the appellants is abominable. The evidence indicates that it is nothing less than assault against honour, which is punishable under law by hard labour, and that the shame and degradation visited upon the appellants was so humiliating and inflaming as to drive them to revenge. If, as the testimony of the witness Nasser Bek indicates, the appellants were in such dread of the abominations visited upon them during their compulsory stay at the police station, there is not the shadow of a doubt that anyone subjected to such tyrannical degradation, who anticipated further horrors of that nature and who was driven to murder his torturer, would be driven to that crime under the compulsion of the dread of what awaits him. A person in such a condition of dread is not in a state of mind that allows for calm reflection or permits the intellect to govern coolly and rationally the criminal ends which his imagination believes will put an end to his suffering."
Concluding his ruling, the Court of Appeals judge wrote, "It is impossible to object that if premeditation is legally absent, so too is design, which inherently requires the presence of premeditation and cannot be conceived independently. And, as long as this is the case, the ruling of the Criminal Court must be overturned." Furthermore, the court had based its verdict on "a confused, indeed, incorrect foundation. In justifying its assertion of premeditation it cited the evidence proving the abominations the victim had inflicted upon the appellants. Yet we find that in its ruling on the nature of the punishment it states that in hunting these two thieves El-Shafie was acting in the pursuit of duty. It is as though the court regarded the victim's criminal perversion, which it had already acknowledged, as appropriate behaviour for an official in the performance of his duties, even though common sense dictates that these offences were so grave as to provoke any person, even a criminal, and should compel the court to show compassion and reduce the degree of punishment should that person have sought revenge."
Under ordinary circumstances, Judge Abdel-Aziz Fahmi's ruling would not have had major repercussions. The public would probably have notched it up to a case of abuse of power against a convict who had been driven to revenge. However, the political climate of the time dictated otherwise. In the escalating conflict between the autocratic government of Ismail Sidqi, backed by the palace, and the nationalist movement led by the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist Party, administrative officials were crucial weapons in the hands of the former camp. Sidqi had long since ousted officials known for their pro-Wafd sympathies and appointed others, not only loyal to him, but frequently so zealous in their loyalty that they had little compunction at using extreme measures to impose the government's authority. It was because the Badari case took place against this backdrop that the reaction it triggered succeeded in so shaking the government that Sidqi was ultimately forced to form a new cabinet.
The Badari case also proved the spark that jolted the Wafd Party out of the momentary languor it was suffering as the result of internal divisions. Differences among party members over the call to form a national unity government, a notion opposed by a minority led by party chief Mustafa El-Nahhas and Secretary-General Makram Ebeid, had escalated to the degree that eight senior members broke away from the party. The Badari case gave party leaders a rallying cry to cement their party back together and enable it to resume an energetic opposition to the Sidqi government.
The call for a national unity government had also ruptured the anti-Sidqi alliance between the Wafd and the other major party, the Liberal Constitutionalist. When the Liberal Constitutionalists discovered that they had been grasping at straws, they rejoined ranks with the Wafd and the Badari case provided the cause with which they could reaffirm their solidarity with the opposition movement.
In this charged climate, the government, too, had been beset with divisions, with Minister of Justice Ali Maher and Abdel-Fattah Yehya, who had his eye on the position of prime minister, leading a camp opposed to Sidqi. Once again, the Badari case served as a catalyst, this time to instigate the seething rivalries within the Sidqi cabinet.
Before examining the details of the struggles between the various parties we should note that Al-Ahram was not far from the heat of battle, which we can observe in a number of articles. In the newspaper's issue of 21 December 1932, under the headline, "The tragedy of the Badari police chief: between the verdict of the court and the verdict of psychology", Mohamed Ahmed El-Sawi condemned the perverse and horrendous behaviour of the victim and described the appeals court ruling as "one of the purest and proudest pages in the history of the Egyptian judiciary". The famous columnist continues, "We have no doubt that the wish of this court will be answered by the higher authorities of the state, which issue their rulings in the name of His Royal Majesty King Fouad I, and that the penalty imposed on the victim's killers will be reduced in conformance with the highest possible level of compassion."
More significantly, the newspaper's editorial of 28 December, carrying the headline, "The Badari incident: Constitutional rule and spirit", observed, "If we view this incident or scandal from the purely national and social perspective, without taking other factors into consideration, we must ask ourselves whether this type of incident is rare, a mere anomaly. If it is so, then its malignancy is limited to a very narrow scope and can be treated within the confines of that scope. However, if it is not so, and if the spirit of injustice, tyranny and brutality is widespread, then the malignancy is extremely grave, justice is in peril and society is afflicted with a pernicious disease the treatment of which will require the most stringent vigilance and most intensive and effective forms of upbringing and education."
Nor does El-Sawi beat around the bush with regard to what was perceived as a primary source of the problem. Referring to bureaucratic officials, he asks, "Is it possible for a person who champions one camp over another to remain true to the spirit of justice, freedom and equality? Can a person who abandons the path of impartiality through his engagement in politics act with integrity in other positions? We have seen before our eyes entire armies of mayors and other armies of mayors appointed in their stead. With this constant expulsion and reinstatement of such armies of civil servants how can there ever be stability?"
The Wafd waged its campaign over the Badari case in official statements and through the party's newspapers. Its opening salvo took the form of a statement "from the Egyptian Wafd Party to the noble Egyptian people". Appearing in Al-Ahram of 1 January 1933, it attacked the policies of the Sidqi government in general and then addressed the Badari case at length. On the latter it proclaimed, "Fellow Egyptians, that pernicious spirit that has been exposed by the Badari incident and that has generated chaos and much worse, to the degree that it has compelled the Court of Appeals to exonerate those who take revenge into their own hands, is a manifestation of the tyranny that hangs over your heads. You now see that this government has revived the era of the whip to collect taxes at a time when your land lays fallow. Because of the policies of this government the financial crisis has so intensified as to erode your remaining means of subsistence, while the revenues that the government extracts from the sweat of your brow go to the coffers of the colonialists and their companies and those who support and aid them."
The three Wafd Party newspapers were no less relentless. Under the headline, "The government's position on the Badari incident", Al-Balagh writes, "People are talking of the Court of Appeals verdict and upon this they base their verdict on the government and its style of rule. They know the difference between a ruling pronounced by the Court of Appeals and statement issued by the government defending itself against the accusations and evidence that have piled up against it."
Al-Jihad charged that the government was shielding its functionaries and that it manipulated the law to create "a yoke on the necks of the oppressed and a fortress to protect civil servants who abuse their power". Referring to a law that permitted authorities to detain suspects without charge, the newspaper accused the government of keeping this law alive in order to bring innocent people in its net, while "ensuring that investigators and the police are safe from the scrutiny of the public prosecutor and the courts and that Sidqi Pasha remains in power as long as fate determines".
The third Wafd newspaper, Kawkab Al-Sharq, observed that public opinion was drawn to the "Badari tragedy" because it held a message of great importance. This was that "God has decided to expose the flagrantly scandalous methods of this government through a case that initially seemed of little importance and that had nothing to do with politics until the highest judicial authority in the land pronounced its noble verdict."
The Liberal Constitutionalists' newspaper, Al-Siyasa, was equally outspoken. It wrote, "Today we could well ask whether the Badari incident was a tragedy or a farce. Certainly, between the rulings of the Criminal Court and the Court of Appeals it is a tragedy that makes one's hair stand on end due to the horrors they relate. Yet to the Ministry of Justice it is a trivial incident entailing no more than the fact that in February 1932 a man convicted of theft was beaten up, leaving him with only a black eye and was forced by a constable to say certain things while bound in a donkey's bridle so as to intimidate other suspects. Which version is closer to the truth? Should we laugh along with the ministry? Or should we grieve at a tragedy in which human dignity was debased and justice and the law were dealt a most ignominious blow?"
As the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalists kept up their barrage, troubles were brewing inside the cabinet. They started when Minister of Justice Ali Maher ordered that the police chief's assailants be treated as ordinary convicts. Thus, as Al-Ahram reported, "the chains in which they were bound were removed, as was the red uniform that prisoners condemned to death are normally compelled to wear." The minister then agreed with the minister of interior to instruct the public prosecutor to proceed with investigations into the complaints of torture filed against local authorities in Badari. Of particular concern was that filed by Sheikh Ahmed Gaidi, the father of Ahmed Gaidi Abdel-Haqq, who had been sentenced to death, that police authorities in Badari had extended their torment to Ahmed's elder brother against whom they had issued a caution for being a vagrant and ordered to spend every night in the police station.
Investigators were thorough. They questioned everyone in the public prosecutor's office, police and local administration who had been involved in the investigation of the police chief's murder and they also reopened the files on the cases that were still pending with the prosecution. Investigations into the sheikh's complaint, in particular, unearthed a political dimension, revolving around the rivalry between the Gaidi and Hamam clans over the local mayorship. As the Hamams were Sidqi supporters, a member of this clan was appointed mayor. This mayor then set about to harass members of the Gaidi clan, "foremost among whom was the man the Criminal Court had sentenced to death". Al-Ahram continues, "The mayor would accuse them of theft and other crimes and his policemen would bring them in for investigations, during which process there transpired the abominable acts attributed to the police chief and his staff."
As the lurid details of the case were revealed, Egyptians would have still expected the government to close ranks. However, when parliamentary representatives Abdel-Rahman El-Baili and Ibrahim Zaki asked the minister of justice to update them on the results of the investigations, Ali Maher made no attempt to exonerate or even underplay the gravity of the injustices perpetrated by local authorities in Badari. On 29 January 1933, Al-Ahram reports, "His Excellency Ali Maher met with Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals Abdel-Aziz Fahmi yesterday and the two remained in Maher's office until 4.00pm in order to prepare his statement to parliament. At 5.00pm, Maher arrived at the parliament building, entered the representatives' chamber and waited for the appointed time for questions."
However, what happened next came as a surprise to all present. The Al-Ahram account continues: "After a few moments, His Excellency Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi appeared and called the minister of justice into his office. After 10 minutes the prime minister sent for the other members of his cabinet and soon afterwards His Excellency Mohamed Zaki El-Ibrashi, head of the Royal Council, arrived and joined the meeting which lasted for a considerable period of time. Then, the prime minister left the meeting and entered the parliamentary assembly while the rest of the cabinet members remained in the meeting room."
Unlike most sessions of the Sidqi parliament, which generally convened to rubber stamp decisions made by the government or the king, this session commanded widespread attention. Al-Ahram relates, "The visitors balcony was packed and other members of the public stood row after row in the other balconies. Even in the women's balconies, there were not enough chairs to accommodate all the spectators, and many women had to remain standing behind those fortunate enough to find seats." Meanwhile, on the floor of the house, some members had grown restless because of a rumour that had begun to circulate that the minister of education would be delivering the required answer on behalf of the minister of justice. MP Fahim El-Qei'i was reported to have protested, "One can accept that a minister stands in for another on some matters, but not one of this importance."
Commenting, the Al-Ahram correspondent who was on hand to cover the session, noted that it had also been rumoured that Chief Justice Abdel-Aziz Fahmi had threatened to resign if the minister of justice delivered an answer that conflicted with the findings of his court. However, after further investigation it was learned that these rumours were groundless and that Maher had prepared his reply and that he had agreed with his fellow cabinet members that he would deliver it personally to parliament without anyone having seen it beforehand, "since ultimately this matter concerned him alone". The prime minister, on the other hand, was of a different opinion. "His Excellency took issue with some of the contents of the response and summoned the other cabinet members to a meeting during which they were unable to reach a reconciliation between the points of view of the prime minister and minister of justice, who absolutely refused to alter his response and remained adamant that the matter fell solely under his jurisdiction."
Maher had obviously won the round, for he finally appeared before parliament to deliver his statement. The portion that the prime minister had objected to read as follows: "Regardless of the questions one might raise with regard to the validity of the ruling of the Criminal Court, it has left the impression that its investigation failed to reveal the full extent of the truth. As long as such a suspicion remains, no matter how faint, it casts a shadow over the justice of the verdict as pertains to the penalties it pronounced. One's conscience will therefore remain uneasy unless the sentences are reduced, especially as Gaidi had been sentenced to death, which is irrevocable, and as it has been established that the assault against Hassan Ashour had taken place before he had committed the crime."
The government had little choice but to comply. Shortly after Maher's statement, a royal decree was issued reducing Gaidi's death sentence to life imprisonment with hard labour and Ashour's sentence from life to 15 years prison with hard labour. However this, in addition to an additional statement delivered to parliament on 2 January, failed to appease public opinion which continued to protest "the Badari tragedy and the various horrors of torture that it exposed as the current government's method of rule".
In the face of this mounting pressure, Sidqi had a trick or two up his sleeve. On 4 January, he tendered his resignation, claiming that his current cabinet was so fragile that "I am no longer able to perform my national duty in the post which Your Majesty has conferred upon me." Sidqi was then instructed to form a new cabinet which, to no-one's surprise, contained neither Ali Maher nor Abdel-Fattah Yehya. Perhaps, too, it came as no surprise that, on the day following the announcement of the cabinet reshuffle, Sidqi delivered a statement to parliament denying that the government had asked Maher to make any alterations in his statement or that any attempt was made to prevent the former minister of justice from delivering his statement personally. In spite of such actions, Sidqi had only won himself a temporary respite. The events in Badari on the evening of 19 March 1932 had delivered Sidqi a severe blow and heralded the toppling of this Egyptian political giant less than nine months later.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.