Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (527)
The Sidqi years
Almost 40 months passed from the time Ismail Sidqi was appointed to form a government in June 1930 to when he was obliged to hand in his resignation in September 1933. This relatively long-lasting government by the standards of the time was not just another of the many governments that came and went during that period. The distinctive character of the prime minister and the uniqueness of the policies he introduced inspired historians to set this period apart. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* reviews what is dubbed the "Sidqi era"
Perhaps it was the idiosyncrasies of the era that induced Al-Ahram to dedicate a full page of its issue of 28 September 1933 to a "brief history of the (Ismail) Sidqi government". The "history", in fact, was more in the nature of a chronicle of the period from June 1930 to September 1933, from which we have selected the most important political and economic events.
Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi
British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Percy Lorraine
The high commissioner delivers a statement from British Prime Minister MacDonald to Sidqi Pasha and El-Nahhas. The statement, concerning the security situation in the country, held both the prime minister and the leader of the Wafd Party responsible for the safety of foreigners.
The government puts into effect the ministerial decree of July 1928 prohibiting students from engaging in political activity.
October: The Liberal Constitutional Party announces its refusal to support the government in its actions with regard to the constitution.
23 October: New constitution promulgated, replacing the constitution of 1922.
29 October: Announcement of royal beneficence awarded to officials in the royal court, government ministries and departments and rectors of religious institutes. The 270 honours included the bestowal of 70 titles of pasha, 161 titles of bek, 161 medals and 23 special cloaks worn by the ulama, or religious scholars. (The awards were intended to secure support for the palace and the Sidqi government).
19 November: The Shaab Party formed and publicises its articles of association. (The new party was headed by Sidqi and included among its members pro-palace officials, notables and lawyers).
Cabinet approves Ministry of Finance proposal to create a new civil servant category.
Khedive Abbas II relinquishes claim to the throne and all other rights and claims in Egypt.
May-June: Parliamentary elections are held (under the provisions of the new constitution and boycotted by both the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist parties).
Inauguration of the new parliament. (This became known as the Sidqi parliament. It was thoroughly royalist, consisting primarily of the two pro-palace parties, the Shaab and the Ittihad. It also included members of the National Party whose antagonism to the Wafd drove it to ally itself with the royalists).
December: Office of the Chamber of Deputies moves to transform the building between the Chamber of Deputies and Senate buildings into a Pharaonic Hall.
December: Prime Minister Sidqi's speech to the throne broadcast live in Cairo and Alexandria.
Government issues memorandum outlining its position on applying the Press and Publications Law to foreign-owned periodicals.
His Majesty King Fouad visits the Egyptian University and presents honourary degrees from that university's various faculties to a group of senior government officials.
April: Cabinet moves to dismiss Taha Hussein from his position as the university's dean of the Faculty of Letters. Egyptian University Rector Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed resigns in protest.
Bomb explodes on the railway line in Tama just before the train bearing the prime minister arrives at this station.
November: Split in Wafd Party leadership. Eight members form breakaway group.
December: Court of Appeals issues ruling on the Badari case, overturning the sentences of death and life imprisonment against two villagers who had taken revenge on the Badari police chief for torturing them.
7 January: Prime minister issues statement on Badari incident. Minister of Justice Ali Maher, before parliament, alludes to differences between him and Sidqi over the issue. Sidqi resigns then forms new government that does not include Abdel-Fattah Yehya, Ali Maher and Tawfiq Doss.
Prime minister's office issues bulletin ascertaining that Sidqi was recovering after having complained of feeling faint and being taken home.
March: Cabinet hosts banquet in honour of the king and queen of Italy who were on a two-week visit to Egypt.
March: Cabinet reshuffle bringing in Mahmoud El-Qaisi, Ali El-Manzilawi and Mohamed Allam.
August: British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Percy Lorraine appointed British ambassador to Rome. (Lorraine had been associated with London's declared policy of non- intervention in Egypt's domestic affairs which, in practical terms, gave Sidqi and the king free rein to implement a range of repressive policies).
The signs of the imminent demise of the highly unpopular Sidqi government began to show at the beginning of September 1933. On 2 September, Al-Ahram's correspondent in London reported that the Morning Post had learned from its correspondent in Cairo that the collapse of the Sidqi government was at hand. The story was also published in the London Times whose correspondent in Alexandria wrote that persons close to Sidqi, who was then in Paris, revealed that the prime minister would soon tender his resignation.
Lending weight to the rumour was the following report dispatched that day by Al-Ahram's correspondent in Paris: "In spite of the fact that Sidqi Pasha's health has improved during the three and a half months that he has been in Europe, he is feeling stress by the many meetings he has had in Paris since his return here from Switzerland. There is a possibility that His Excellency may not be able to continue to sustain the burdens of his office upon his return to Egypt. I am certain that he has not yet tendered his resignation. When he returns to Alexandria he will put the state of his health to His Majesty the King and will make no definite decisions until after that meeting."
Apparently such speculation was not that new. Under the headline, "Is a government crisis at hand?" Al-Ahram reports that rumours of this nature had been circulating in the upper echelons of government throughout the summer. One report had it that Sidqi had tendered his resignation before travelling to Europe for treatment but that the king had refused to accept it on the grounds that there were still affairs that Sidqi had left pending before his illness. After citing similar stories, the article stated, "All reports indicate that a resignation is in the offing and that speculation is now focussing on other matters, foremost among which is the shape of the current cabinet. Will it, for example, remain as it is, with Sidqi Pasha as its head while another minister assumes the financial portfolio under Sidqi's supervision in order to lessen his burden?" As for the possibility of an entirely new cabinet, "this has not occurred to anyone, here or in London." Nevertheless, the author is quick to add, "This does not mean that the situation is immutable, for everything is liable to change. But what is certain up to now is that a change in the current order is not being considered and that the question revolves solely around the position of prime minister and some other ministerial posts, all of which are contingent upon the will of His Majesty the King."
The newspaper's analysis ultimately proved correct, perhaps much to the disappointment of its readers. Nevertheless, two days later it featured another commentary which explored other possibilities. The writer asserted firstly that Sidqi's friends and adversaries alike were unanimous in their praise for his skill, expertise, flexibility and scope of awareness, as well as for his courage and determination. However, "Do circumstances permit him to sustain his strength as head of the Shaab Party, which is currently the majority of parliament, or will it be necessary to dissolve parliament and contemplate forming a new government?" In other words, the question that concerned the writer and undoubtedly all other concerned parties, including the king himself, was the shape of the Sidqi era without Sidqi.
As the question was still purely academic at this point the commentator could only hazard an opinion. Naturally, doubts swirled around the continued viability of the party Sidqi founded, or as the commentator put it, "Has this party attained sufficient order and cohesiveness to enable it to stand firm under stress and to fight under assault, or will it furnish proof, after Sidqi departs from government and the premiership, that some parties assemble, not for principle or political ideology, but for personal gain and advantage, and that if there is no gain or advantage to be had, then principle simply does not arise?"
If the Shaab Party, tailor made to suit Sidqi, went under, what of the parliament that was created under a constitution tailor made to the king? On this body, the writer remarked, "Sidqi only had to be absent for a brief span during his illness for all to note a fissure in the parliamentary structure and confusion and disarray in the mood of that body, upon which the government depends for its existence and policies, and upon which he depends, as is well-known."
In light of these questions, the analyst proposed two hypotheses. The first was that Sidqi would remain head of his party, in which case the party would retain its parliamentary majority and, hence, its coherence, and Sidqi himself would maintain his control. The second was that Sidqi, still at the head of his party, would shift to the opposition. This possibility, however, he ruled out "because the current parliamentary government is founded upon two columns, the Ittihad and the Shaab. If they want this situation to continue, they must respect the current configuration. Otherwise, new elections will have to be held, in which case new factors will come into play, a free and fair electoral battle will be fierce, and there will be no guarantee that the two ruling parties will be able to secure the majority."
Amidst all these uncertainties there loomed yet another question. With former British High Commissioner Lorraine transferred to Rome and the imminent arrival of another Foreign Office man, Sir Miles Lampson, would there be a change in British policy in Egypt? For several years, Lorraine followed the British line of "neutrality" in Egyptian affairs, which essentially meant leaving the populist parties prey to the despotism of the king, via Sidqi and his parliament. But now there was a new trend in London that Lampson would most likely implement. This was to revert to offering Egyptian authorities "technical advice", that old rubric for dictating London's policies.
Finally, on 5 September 1933, Sidqi returned from his lengthy convalescence in Europe. True to the characteristic secrecy of Egyptian officialdom, the prime minister's reception in Alexandria gave no clue to the looming crisis. As was customary, once his ship reached the harbour, boats bearing their excellencies the minister, the speaker of parliament, the general-director of the Railway Authority, the public prosecutor and the governor of Alexandria putted out to the ship and all these officials, notables and dignitaries climbed on board to welcome His Excellency and escort him back to shore. Then, in keeping with the pretence of normality, Sidqi headed straight from the port to Ras Al-Tin Palace where he penned his name in the ledger of visitors to the royal court, after which he met with members of the press and informed them that the following day he would be going to the prime minister's office in Bolkley where he would meet his colleagues in the cabinet and apprise them of the "current situation", after which he would meet with some officials from the palace.
Given this cloak of secrecy, Al-Ahram had little choice but to resort to outside sources, particularly the British press, in its attempt to enlighten the Egyptian public. Thus, from its correspondent in London came a lengthy review of the British press on the subject, beginning with the reports filed by the Cairo correspondents of the Morning Post and Daily Mail. Both were in accord that Sidqi's intention to resign was motivated not by health, but by political reasons. The Alexandria correspondent of the Daily Telegraph agreed, and went on to assert that Sidqi would not change his mind "unless he receives reassurances that he will be permitted to administer the affairs of government without intervention". The correspondent was even specific about the agency of intervention. He predicted some change in the composition of the cabinet, but the crux of the problem, in his opinion, was a power struggle between Sidqi and the palace, as represented in the figure of Zaki El-Ibrashi.
Contrary to its general reluctance to steer clear of sensitive domestic issues, Al-Ahram, on 8 September 1933, touched upon this power struggle in an article entitled, "The government crisis". While Sidqi was still in Europe, it said, he wrote to Egypt to nominate Mohamed Shafiq to replace him as prime minister, pledging at the same time to give Shafiq his full support in his (Sidqi's) capacity as head of the majority party in parliament. The palace replied that Sidqi's request could not be approved as the matter was one that concerned the king alone. Although palace officials described Sidqi's request as "a departure from political traditions", Al-Ahram felt that the prime minister was acting out of "good faith" in his capacity as leader of the majority party.
The newspaper had put its finger on the problem but for the inside story we must turn to British Foreign Office archives which reveal that, in a meeting with the British high commissioner, Fouad had conveyed his misgivings that Sidqi was turning into a dictator and that he, the king, did not like to see too much power concentrated in the hands of a single individual such as the prime minister. Sidqi, too, met with the high commissioner. According to the files, the prime minister complained that the palace was meddling too much in government business and appointments to various posts. He further held that there were no effective constitutional checks on the king's actions and that during the period Sidqi had been in Europe Fouad had effectively brought the cabinet under his control.
Following Sidqi's return to Egypt on 5 September, the final scenes in the silent conflict between him and the king played themselves out, a development one can read between the lines in Al-Ahram. The prime minister believed he could use his position as Shaab Party chief to pressure the king. On 7 September, the party's central committee met in Alexandria, at the home of one of its members. Hardly had the meeting begun than one of the members stood up and, addressing Sidqi, said, "We do not want to hear from your Excellency the word 'resignation', because the country needs you to remain in its service, both as prime minister and as leader of the party."
There is ample reason to believe that the scene was engineered by Sidqi as a way to transform that meeting into a demonstration of support, all the more so as the scenario was repeated that same evening at a tea party. On this occasion, a senior Shaab Party official, addressing the gathering, asked the prime minister, "in the name of the Shaab Party, the Ittihad and the independents, may you continue your struggle to fulfil the nation's aspiration for full and undiminished independence and freedom. In your hands reside the security of our national interests and the solution of its problems." Then, an Ittihad Party leader stood and spoke. The nation was in dire need of Sidqi's leadership, he said. It was Sidqi who had "stepped forward and with great intrepidity and fortitude assumed the helm of the nation in the storm-tossed seas and steered it safely to shore. He has shouldered the burdens of the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Interior and the premiership, all with an unflagging resolve, an indefatigable energy, a peerless intellectual vitality and a selfless, self- sacrificing dedication."
That Sidqi had stage-managed these demonstrations of support appears yet more likely in light of his response. He was deeply grateful for these sentiments, he said, and for all the telegrams that he received from many of those present who had expressed "their support for the current government and their support for me and my methods". In addition, he alluded to the problem he was having with the palace when he lauded Shafiq Pasha, whom he had left in charge of his office while away, "for his dedication to me, personally, and for his commitment to the task with which he was charged". Sidqi was referring obliquely to the division that had arisen in the cabinet during his absence between those loyal to him, foremost among whom was Shafiq, and those, whether palace stooges or otherwise, who placed their allegiance to the king above their loyalty to Sidqi.
On the other side, the king was undoubtedly lying in wait, if we are to judge by his confidences to the British high commissioner. The opportunity presented itself with the Badari case, involving the assassination of a notorious police chief by two convicts who had been victims of his acts of torture. As police chiefs, like other rural administrative officials, were government appointees, the case came as a severe blow to the government. To make matters worse for himself, a cabinet reshuffle took place after a court of appeals reversed the criminal court's rulings against the people Sidqi ousted, Ali Maher and Abdel-Fattah Yehya, the latter of whom was known to be one of the king's men.
Ultimately, it was inevitable that Sidqi would have to go. Clearly Sidqi had submitted his resignation as a challenge, expecting the king to turn it down again. However, this time the king took up the gauntlet and, on 21 September, announced that he had accepted Sidqi's resignation and, as an additional slap in the face, appointed Yehya to replace him. Moreover, in order to undercut Sidqi's political influence entirely, the new government, a pro-palace government if there ever was one, succeeded in having him dismissed as head of the party he had founded. Yet, not only was this government mistaken in its belief that it could end Sidqi's political career, it embodied the answer to the question of the fate of the Sidqi era without Sidqi. The Yehya government lasted barely a year before falling, and with its fall and the creation of the Tawfiq Nassim government on 14 November 1934, the Sidqi era drew to a close.
As for Sidqi, he would retain his title as Egypt's "political tiger", as some dubbed him. Moreover, recent developments had taught him two fundamental lessons that, perhaps, would help him make his comeback. The first was not to be the only giant amidst a group of midgets, for those will be the first to abandon ship in times of adversity. The second was that a man appointed to a position of power by order and with the support of the king cannot leave that position under his own volition, but only by the will of His Majesty.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.