Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (550)
Professor Yunan Labib Rizk sees how two prime ministers, Ismail Sidqi and Abdel-Fattah Yehia, affected their respective times
Just over a year ago, your Royal Will conferred upon me the honour of inviting me to form a cabinet. Together, my ministerial colleagues and I governed the affairs of the nation, dedicating ourselves to the advancement of its welfare and the protection of its dignity, regardless of the domestic and external difficulties we encountered, confident in the support of Your Majesty and in the confidence of the people's representatives.
However, last month, as the Egyptian people were praying to God for the restoration of Your Majesty's health, the British government expressed requests that I find I cannot possibly accept without prejudicing the rights of this nation. Therefore, now that Your Majesty has recovered, I feel compelled to tender my resignation, accompanied with my prayers for your continued health and vigour and with my gratitude to your noble person for all the care, sympathy and support you have shown me.
I remain Your Majesty's loyal and faithful servant,
The letter tendering the resignation of Egypt's 43rd cabinet was dated 6 November 1934 and published in Al-Ahram nine days later along with King Fouad's response of 14 November:
"Dear Abdel-Fattah Yehia,
We have read Your Excellency's letter of resignation and have accepted it with great regret, in view of your loyalty and devotion to me and the sincerity and nobility of purpose you have shown in the service of the nation. I convey to Your Excellency and to your venerable colleagues our gratitude for the excellent work and great service you have performed in the course of the pursuit of your duties."
It was generally the custom for the royal decree inviting a new prime minister to form a cabinet to be publicised the same day as the decree accepting the resignation of the outgoing one. That this was absent in this case -- and for a period lasting over a week -- has drawn the attention of scholars of this period. This is because the interstice represented more than the ordinary transfer of power from one prime minister to the next; it marked the transition from one historical era to another. The outgoing era was that personified by Ismail Sidqi, the prime minister who, years earlier, had suspended the 1923 Constitution, promulgated another, founded a new political party, Ittihad, held parliamentary elections that were boycotted by the two most powerful political parties at the time -- the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalists -- and succeeded in producing a parliament tailor- made for him and the authoritarian ambitions of the king.
The Sidqi era governments remained powerful as long as its founder remained in power. The "Egyptian political tiger", as he was dubbed, succeeded in delivering several debilitating blows to the nationalist movement, as represented by the Wafd Party, which suffered a major secession from within its leadership ranks the year after Sidqi assumed office. However, it was not long before Sidqi who wanted to retain as much power as he could in the era he had inaugurated, found himself on a collision course with the king who sought a more thoroughly monarchist rule. The rivalry reached a head in 1933 when the Sidqi government was dismissed and a new cabinet was formed under Abdel- Fattah Yehia, whom the palace found much more malleable. Yehia remained in power just over a year, a period that gave rise to a number of factors that would hasten the end of the era he was brought in to sustain.
One of these factors was the inability of the new government to restrain "irresponsible elements" in the palace. The power of these elements had grown out of all proportion at the time of the king's illness which kept him bedridden for months in Muntazah Palace in Alexandria and unable to make the trip back to Abdin Palace, his royal headquarters in Cairo. Especially notorious was Chief Inspector of the Royal Estates Zaki El-Ibrashi, a key figure in precipitating the end of the Sidqi era. The British Foreign Office file on this "man [who was] of humble origins but intelligent and persistent," contained some choice remarks. "He began his career in the public prosecutors office in which he tested his mettle. Before the elections of 1923, he worked as assistant to the deputy minister of interior, in which capacity he earned the anger of the Liberal Constitutionalists who charged that he had worked against them during the elections. Afterwards, he became a deputy in the Ministry of Waqf Foundations and then, in 1925, a deputy in the Ministry of Finance. In that year, he became the inspector of royal property, administrating in this capacity the vast possessions of King Fouad with total dedication. After 1930, he served as a palace appointee in government cabinets and his constant interventions in the administration made him one of the best-hated men in Egypt."
The dossier pauses in 1934 to state, "These interventions continued under the government of Abdel-Fattah Yehia without the circumspection and discretion that had characterised them before. During the summer of that year, he had acquired unrivalled powers and became the model of everything that was deplorable in the era of the 1930 Constitution. He was accused of abusing his powers to compel the ministries of public works, transportation and agriculture to furnish royal lands with whatever canal and bridge construction, irrigation water and fruit trees he asked for. Moreover, he forced peasants into compulsory labour on the royal estates, especially that in Edfina. By this time, he had become the king's foremost adviser, presenting him the facts as he coloured them while letting him believe that he, the king, was the ultimate decision-maker."
It was curiously timely that on 10 October a London Times correspondent in Cairo filed a lengthy report on some of El- Ibrashi's illegitimate activities, the effect of which was to shatter the aura of taboo that had long shielded him from attack. From that day forward, the national press sank its teeth into the man, giving the British High Commissioner's Office the perfect pretext to act on its own desire, ending that era.
That the nationalist movement by then had regained much of its strength was a second factor to militate towards the end of that era. Its renewed vigour manifested itself in several developments, the significance of which was not lost on the British high commissioner. One was the Wafd Party's decision to revive National Jihad Day, on 13 November, an attempt by the Wafd to exercise its renewed muscle. A second was the party's clash with Yehia over the government's attempt to tamper with the Wafd- dominated Lawyers Syndicate which culminated in widespread demonstrations in support of the syndicate's leader, Makram Ebeid, who was also secretary-general of the Wafd, much to the government's embarrassment.
Al-Ahram enumerated several other factors that combined to create a powder keg that the British, in particular, were eager to diffuse. As if the Sidqi government had not already taken numerous actions to suppress freedom of the press, the Yehia government initiated a clampdown "unprecedented under previous governments". In addition, the government failed to take effective measures to alleviate the economic crisis and the national debt, to resolve the controversy over the Mixed Court System and to fill the crucial post of minister plenipotentiary to London which had been left vacant for nearly a year. Indeed, the newspaper held the government responsible for the decline in King Fouad's health "and the consequent weakness of the position of His Majesty, which is being exploited by the British."
The fate of the Sidqi era was sealed in October 1934 when Morris Peterson, the chargé d'affaires for the British high commissioner, determined that the longer the Yehia government stayed in power the greater the possibilities of mass unrest, of which the British would be an inevitable target. To compound his qualms, Peterson had just had a private interview with the Italian physician who had been brought in especially to examine the king and whose prognosis was not optimistic.
His first step was to put out feelers to the Wafd Party. On 8 October he held a secret meeting with Wafd leaders Mustafa El- Nahhas and Makram Ebeid who acknowledged that the country needed British help and that their party would not object to British intervention aimed at bringing in a new order under the premiership of Tawfiq Nasim.
Step two was to fill the vacant post of chief of the Royal Cabinet, a vacancy which had given the "irresponsible elements" the opportunity to wield more power than they should have. Exercising a certain amount of arm twisting, Peterson succeeded in prevailing upon the king to appoint Ahmed Zeiwar to this post on 28 October. Nevertheless, he still had reservations which he expressed in a confidential letter to the Foreign Office secretary the substance of which was conveyed in a report by the Cairo correspondent for the British News Chronicle : "The appointment of Ahmed Zeiwar Pasha is a step in the right direction. However, the question remains as to whether Zeiwar will be able to check the influence of El-Ibrashi who still retains his post in the palace and the powers that come with it."
Peterson's next move was to press for the removal of two government ministers whose names had become closely linked with flagrant financial misappropriations. In addition to these allegations, Minister of Agriculture Ali El-Manzalawi and Minister of Transport Ibrahim Fahmi Karim were also known to be El-Ibrashi's key men on the cabinet. After a short meeting between Peterson on 2 November the king yielded. But contrary to his expectations, the dismissal of El-Manzalawi and Karim would not salvage the Yehia government.
As Al-Ahram put it, the High Commissioner's Office did not feel that these resignations solved the problem which is why, the following day, Peterson informed the newly installed chief of the Royal Cabinet that he would settle for nothing short of the resignation of the entire government. That all his actions had been leading up to this point is evident in the fact that communications had been flying back and forth between him and London over a possible successor to Yehia and that in these communications two names were mooted: the Wafd's nominee Tawfiq Nasim and Ali Maher.
It is doubtful whether the latter ever stood a chance. Maher was the palace's choice, the man who favoured maintaining the status quo but who was willing to introduce a few reforms. Nasim's appointment, on the other hand, would, as Al-Ahram remarked, "fundamentally alter the present order and set it on course to the gradual reinstitution of a broad-based parliamentary system that will faithfully reflect the will of the people".
Al-Ahram obviously knew which way the wind was blowing. As though to prove this, it anticipated events by featuring a lengthy biography of Nasim, one, moreover, that highlighted his long-standing opposition to the royalist system that Sidqi had championed. Before this era, however, Nasim had served twice as prime minister in the period between 1920 and 1923. In 1924, he was appointed minister of finance under the "People's government" led by Saad Zaghlul. After the fall of that government, he was elected speaker of the Senate in the next parliament that was subsequently suspended until 1926. He then served as chief of the Royal Cabinet until he resigned in 1931.
Having brought readers up to the crucial period, the biography pauses to note that Nasim's resignation was prompted by "differences between himself and El-Ibrashi Pasha over certain matters pertaining to the royal palace and by his objection to the programme of the Sidqi-led government and its abolition of the constitution". Also as a demonstration of protest, when Nasim was appointed a member of the senate under the new constitution, "he refused to take the oath of office and never attended a single session before finally handing in his resignation".
The biography continues: "His Excellency has remained out of public office for nearly three and a half years. Last year, however, he opened communications and began to exchange visits with the leaders of the opposition parties. His presence at the inaugural ceremonies for the National Courts Lawyers Club attracted particular attention. Makram Ebeid, the president of the club, accorded him a special expression of gratitude for accepting the invitation and described him as a man of great integrity in political, administrative and judicial affairs."
In the opinion of Al-Ahram, Nasim was the only Egyptian politician capable of overseeing a smooth transition to the restoration of constitutional life. "The British high commissioner recognises this, as does the British press which has uniformly praised his virtues and qualifications."
On 8 November 1934 Abdel-Fattah Yehia tendered his resignation, the text of which opens this episode of the Chronicle. Although the letter openly alluded to British intervention in domestic affairs, this was one of the rare instances in which such meddling did not provoke reaction. The British had played their cards well, having already established common ground over this matter with Wafd Party leaders. Nor, for that matter, was the Wafd the only party to be gratified by this turn of events. In an open letter published in Al-Ahram, Prince Omar Touson, one of the most influential members of the royal family, declared his support for the transition to "government by the majority" and hailed the end of those ministerial appointees who, in their determination to perpetuate their power, had enabled the British "to get Egyptians to give them whatever they want".
However, the game was not yet over; Tawfiq Nasim was wary that the royalist camp would not go down without making one last stand. Contrary to custom, Nasim did not hasten to Abdin to receive the royal invitation to form a cabinet. Instead, he presented a set of demands that would have to be met in order for him to accept the premiership. Foremost among his conditions were the abolition of the 1930 Constitution, the dissolution of the parliament created under it, and full freedom to choose the members of his cabinet which he wanted untainted by suspicions of connections to the palace and the old regime.
As Nasim waited for the reply, the rival contenders in the Egyptian political arena attempted to make their presence felt. The Wafd, naturally, was out there in force. As circumstances would have it, this interval coincided with National Jihad Day, an occasion which the populist party seized upon to demonstrate its enormous influence, as is amply covered in Al-Ahram the following day.
The front page of this 14 November edition displayed four large photographs, all on the celebrations that took place the previous day. The first was of Wafd Party chief Mustafa El-Nahhas and fellow party leaders paying homage in front of the mausoleum of the nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul. Under the second was written, "His Excellency Mustafa El-Nahhas recites the fatiha (the opening verse of the Qur'an) before Saad's mausoleum. To his right is Makram Ebeid." The third picture showed a large group of women and the caption read, "The Saad Zaghlul Women's Committee during their visit yesterday morning to the mausoleum of the dearly departed Zaghlul Pasha." Mustafa El- Nahhas was again the subject of the fourth picture taken during the speech he delivered for this occasion, a speech that the newspaper reproduced in full on the front page and continued on the second. The bulk of page seven was given over to reports on the actual celebrations of National Jihad Day.
If that was the coverage of Al-Ahram, an independent newspaper, it is not surprising that the Wafdist mouthpieces accorded the occasion even greater fanfare, especially in light of the lull in the nationalist movement over previous years. Al-Jihad observed, "It is a propitious coincidence that the commemoration of Jihad Day should be revived at a time when the people are once again asserting their will and putting an end to an era as gloomy, harsh and loathsome as the Great War, if not more so." Another Wafdist newspaper, Kawkab Al-Sharq, wrote, "The violent years of the  revolution are over, but as a lofty ideal the revolution remains alive in the depth of peoples hearts, because faith in the pursuit of liberty is a perpetual intellectual revolution." And in Al-Wadi we read, "Egypt is rejoicing for, today, as a new era commences, it can congratulate itself for its unstinting efforts."
Simultaneously, the Shaab and the Ittihad, the parties that had served as the Sidqi era's parliamentary mainstays, attempted to demonstrate that they were still in the field. The Shaab newspaper continued to harp on "British intervention in Egyptian affairs". This, now, would be the rule of the future, it warned, adding, "Those who are rejoicing now will be shedding copious tears tomorrow when their turn comes to be the target of British demands. Then they will say, 'If only we had stood together as men, we would have spared ourselves the evil of this wretched day.'"
Members of the Ittihad Party, fathered by Sidqi himself, felt their days were numbered. Expressing this anxiety, a party member, Ahmed Wali El-Guindi, sent in an article to Al-Ahram the headline of which asked, "Is the formation of a new cabinet contingent upon the dissolution of the Ittihad Party?" Not if he could help it, his article lets us believe, and towards the end he proclaims, "The Ittihad Party will continue to exist as long as the struggle for the independence of Egypt persists. It will remain steadfast in the pursuit of its patriotic duty, resolved to forge forward, heedless of the arrows it crushes beneath its feet." El-Guindi seems to have been carried away by his rhetoric; the Ittihad Party was hardly a target of criticism because of its valour on behalf of the nationalist cause.
On 13 November Al-Ahram announced the creation of the third Nasim government, the 44th in modern Egyptian history. One of the first facts the newspaper pointed out was that none of the new ministers whose photographs appeared on the front page had served in previous governments, which came as a relief to all except, of course, the king. Until the final moments, the Wafd had been particularly concerned that the new government would include Hassan Sabri, a former senator under the previous administration who had sworn allegiance to the 1930 Constitution. Ultimately, however, "Nasim felt that if he included Sabri in his cabinet he would lose the sympathy of the people from the outset."
Commenting on the composition of his cabinet, the new prime minister stated that it consisted of individuals who had no political party affiliations. It would thus be "an independent government made up of highly intelligent, honest and reputable individuals". It would also be "a strong government because a weak government cannot survive and its purpose will be to put an end to the current order, which is only natural given my well- known long-standing opposition to this order".
In a subsequent statement, Nasim responded to the assertion put about by supporters of the former regime that his government would serve a purely "administrative" function. "The task of my ministry is political in the fullest sense of this word," he countered. "This is not a transitional government but rather a government of stability. A transitional government has only one purpose whereas this government has many tasks before it. Its foremost task will be to subject the constitution and laws promulgated under the current order to legal scrutiny, for my ministers never swore allegiance to a constitution that has been sentenced to termination. They will also have many matters of reform to attend to."
Two weeks later, amidst mass demonstrations in support of the new government, the king issued the royal decree that brought the official end to the Sidqi era. Dated 30 November 1934, it rescinded the constitution brought into effect by Royal Act 70 and dissolved the current parliament. Voicing the general exhilaration, Al-Ahram commented, "The hope to which our people have aspired has come true. It is only natural that the nation should rejoice at the abolition of an order that had been imposed upon them and that they continued to resist until they won the fight to restore constitutional life." Nevertheless, the commentator, Abdallah Hussein, a senior staff writer for Al-Ahram, felt it important to end in a cautionary note. It was not sufficient to end an odious chapter in the nation's history. "People involved in politics must take this opportunity to learn from the experiences of the past and from the tragedies that have struck politicians and the nation, delaying the fulfilment of our nationalist cause and hampering the struggle for administrative reform."