Abdallah Huss; Tawfiq Nassim
Egyptian history in general and modern Egyptian history in particular have demonstrated that they have little place for conjecture, no matter how apparently sensible. The phenomenon is difficult to explain but perhaps one reason can be traced to that gap between public opinion and decision- makers. This gap has been evident both in the monarchical era under the British occupation and in the republican era after independence. It quite simply implies that the rulers and the vast majority of the ruled are each acting in accordance with their own set of calculations and that each side believes that it understands the current situation better than the other.
A second factor inhibiting a political analyst's powers of prediction stems from the continued suspension in Egypt of what we might term "the law of natural election", the law in accordance with which democratic societies choose their leaderships. In democratic parliamentary systems founded upon the rotation of power, a free press and guaranteed civil liberties, the composition and relative strength of rival groups on the political scene is readily visible. Britain, for example, has that tradition known as the "shadow cabinet", informing the electorate in advance of at least most of the names of their future ministers should the opposition party come out ahead in the polls. There is thus little room for surprises.
A third and related reason is that, in Egypt, invisible forces tend to have a more profound impact on political developments than in democratic societies. These forces can be political, social or economic and they can also be outside forces, as was certainly the case throughout the British occupation (1882-1954) when the British high commissioner manoeuvred energetically behind the scenes to promote this party over that or to place in power a certain individual regardless of the objections of public opinion.
Nonetheless, one must admit that during that so-called "liberal" period in modern Egyptian history, political forecasters had a little more to go on than they did in the post- revolutionary period. Of course, this was largely restricted to those governments that were formed through legislative elections, as opposed to those formed when electoral law was suspended, and the royal will and its creed that good government meant unquestioning loyalty to the throne held sway.
The foregoing observations are important in order to understand the developments that took place between the Wafd Party national convention on 8-9 January 1935 and the promulgation of the royal decree for the reinstatement of the 1923 Constitution on 13 December that year. The aforementioned convention, which in effect was a mass protest rally against the current status quo, had given rise to high expectations and almost certain scenarios replete with predictions. Held not long after the government of Tawfiq Nassim abrogated the 1930 Constitution with which former Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi had replaced the 1923 Constitution, the general feeling was that the restitution of the latter constitution was just around the corner. Contrary to expectations, however, Nassim remained mysteriously mute on the issue for the next 10 months.
Al-Ahram aired the general mood on several occasions. On 15 June, under the headline, "The dangerous silence of Nassim Pasha," it relayed an Egyptian Gazette article stating that all the press wanted at that time was for the government to declare its position. It was time for the government to emerge from its self-imposed silence. "If parliament was in session, Nassim would be compelled to answer a number of questions. But as long as he is governing the country in the absence of parliament, it is his duty to apprise the people on vital issues through other channels. To our knowledge, no other prime minister has ever muffled himself so completely. Since assuming the premiership almost nine months ago, he has not issued a single statement or communiqué on any matter of priority."
Similarly, on 27 July, under the headline, "The constitutional question: His Excellency Nassim refuses to clear the fog," Al-Ahram demanded that the prime minister clarify his position. "We have furnished an irrefutable argument that the nation has the right to be informed of the steps he has taken and intends to take towards the restoration of the 1923 Constitution," it wrote. It was common knowledge that Nassim had submitted a number of memorandums to the king concerning the creation of a constitutional assembly and other matters, and his argument that such documents were confidential was untenable. "The demand for a constitution is the demand for light and life for the nation. Those advocating this demand are motivated by the desire for their nation to possess all the prerequisites of sovereignty. They must therefore be clear and candid, for the constitution must be founded upon openness, frankness and clarity, not on secrecy and obscurity." In short, the editorial concludes, Nassim must tell the people the facts and reveal to them the substance of the memorandum. "Nothing could be more dangerous than to allow conflicting rumours to spread and suspicions to mount, a phenomenon we hope the government avoids so as to sustain the mutual confidence between the government and the people and so that their efforts can remain united in the cause of the public political and economic welfare."
Another headline, appearing on 6 September, proclaimed: "Officials responsible for the constitution are still silent. They reveal nothing and answer no questions." Certain writers had maintained that the government was diligently doing its duty with regards to Egypt's right to a constitution. Regrettably, the editorial continues, this claim is groundless, declaring, "The only people he is speaking to are the British." With regard to the written communications, not to follow these through with practical steps is "a perilous course that will not lead to the fulfilment of the nation's aspirations regardless of the degree of the prime minister's dedication, his integrity and the trust he has among the defenders of his government and its prime minister's sincerity".
It is difficult to explain Nassim's silence without turning to British confidential archives. In these files we discover that within a week of the Wafd Party conference, the prime minister informed British High Commissioner Sir Miles Lampson that he did not entirely approve of the 1923 Constitution. He had also informed the king of this, as of his intent to propose a draft constitution that would be a compromise between the 1923 and 1930 constitutions.
We also learn that after wavering for about five months, the prime minister submitted a memorandum to the king recommending either the restitution of a modified version of the 1923 Constitution or the drafting of a new constitution. The memorandum was dated 17 April 1935. The wily master of Abdin Palace had little difficulty in discerning that his prime minister was trying to buy time in order to prolong his tenure for as long as possible. The king also realised that Nassim's stay in his lofty position depended more upon the support of the British and the Wafd Party than upon his own royal will. He therefore decided to hand Nassim a pleasant surprise: in his response to the memorandum, he stated that he preferred the option of returning to the 1923 Constitution which he had fought for so many years. Finding himself in a corner, Nassim raced to the British high commissioner for advice.
Lampson immediately advised the panicky prime minister to keep the two memorandums secret. He then wired his superiors in London to apprise them of the situation. In their response, they observed that Nassim had not acted wisely but added that "London wishes to keep him as prime minister." In their opinion he was the politician most capable of keeping the king in check.
In spite of the secrecy, somehow the press got wind of this news, as could be seen in Al-Ahram of 7 May. The newspaper reports that some government circles had been so confident that constitutional life would be restored by the end of that month that many political parties began to prepare for elections. "Indeed, it was rumoured that electoral committees had already been formed. However, this optimism did not last long, and information from various circles, including highly placed sources, has indicated that the restoration of constitutional life remains far off."
The following day, the newspaper stopped beating around the bush and referred directly to the two memorandums mentioned above. The palace undoubtedly leaked the news of this correspondence to the press. After confirming that the king had signalled his preference for restoring the 1923 Constitution, Al-Ahram turned to the attitude of the British. Although the British were initially in support of the return to the constitution, "it now appears that they are keen to place a number of obstacles in the way for fear of adverse consequences from the reinstitution of the constitution before they receive guarantees regarding certain interests they have in Egypt".
On 26 May, Al-Ahram 's prominent writer Abdallah Hussein issued a challenge to Nassim. He called upon the prime minister to draft a royal decree for the reinstatement of the 1923 Constitution and to present it to the king who had already signalled his approval of such a step. "Then, if the British object or issue a threat, the government shall inform the nation of this and the people will know who their adversaries are and will take the necessary constitutional measures to defend the rights of their nation. If, after this, the government resigns [in protest], it will have performed a true patriotic service, for which it will receive the nation's unreserved praise."
The noted columnist then reminded his readers of the British aversion to constitutional life in Egypt. Since the promulgation of the 1923 Constitution, the British colluded either to suspend it, as was the case under the "iron grip" government of Mustafa Mahmoud, or to do away with it entirely, as occurred under Ismail Sidqi who supplanted it with the 1930 Constitution. Now, the British hoped to impede the return to constitutional life, and they had two major reasons for this. The first had to do with the British presence in Egypt, with regard to which "they prefer that parliament does not have the ultimate say, as is provided under the constitution". The second was prompted by political upheavals in Europe and the looming spectre of war. "In light of this international situation, Britain does not perceive it in its interests for authority in Egypt to be outside its direct control and in the hands of parliament, which would undoubtedly include within its corridors extremist elements that could create diverse problems for it."
Abdallah Hussein was not persuaded by the British arguments. The first could be easily resolved as long as good intentions prevailed among both sides and as long as the British proved sincere in helping to restore the constitution. The second was weak, as the international situation had been unstable for years, indeed ever since the end of the Great War in 1918, "which is to say for 17 years, and there is nothing to indicate that these tensions will end in the next few months. In fact, the situation could continue for another 17 years!"
For nearly two weeks, Al-Ahram opted for silence on the subject, prompting a number of readers to wonder why. Could the newspaper have thrown its lot in with the government's campaign of secrecy? As though in answer to this question, it came out with a lengthy commentary entitled, "Constitutional life temporarily shelved". According to the article, official British sources confirmed that Nassim had consulted the high commissioner on the restoration of the 1923 Constitution. In the process of imparting advice, Lampson reminded Nassim of the criticisms that had been levelled against the constitution at the time it was promulgated, the most important being that it was drafted by a committee that did not represent the people. In his opinion, the best solution to the problem would be to hold a constitutional assembly, but only after conditions in the country stabilised and the government had instituted its reforms. Clearly a "vicious circle" was in progress, wrote the commentator. "On the one hand the British say that they will not intervene in Egypt's domestic affairs. On the other, they will always offer advice when asked, and when they do, this advice becomes binding and, as long as there is a British army in Egypt, enforceable."
In addition to its policy of silence, the Nassim government was pursuing another tack. Throughout the spring of 1935 it sustained relentless pressure on the palace to get rid of its right-hand man, Zaki El-Ibrashi. Nassim knew that this effort would win great kudos with the Wafd, whose support he was trying to maintain. But Nassim was currying favour with Wafd leaders in other ways. On 18 May, Al-Ahram reports that the prime minister went all the way to Misr Al-Gadida to meet with Wafd Party chief Mustafa El-Nahhas. "The meeting lasted two hours, during which they engaged in a lengthy discussion on the government's plans with regard to the constitutional question." Citing a "senior Wafdist", Al-Ahram comments that it is premature to suggest that the Wafd has altered its stance towards the government. "The Wafd remains committed to the 1923 Constitution as it has from the outset. The prime minister and his cabinet, and His Excellency the British high commissioner agree with the Wafd on this point, and the relationship between the Wafd and the government is still amicable and discussions between them are characterised by a spirit of goodwill and understanding."
Two weeks later, another meeting took place, this time between several government ministers and a delegation from the Wafd. An "informed source" told Al-Ahram that there had been a fruitful exchange of ideas, but "it cannot be said that the meeting gave grounds for either optimism or pessimism."
In following developments in Egypt over the summer of 1935, one observes the growing restlessness among Egyptian nationalists over the inaction on the constitutional front. Above all, one senses that international developments would detract attention from the Egyptian cause. Events seemed to be propelling towards a new world war. Or, as Al-Ahram wrote, "The dispute between China and Japan has flared again and Japanese troops have invaded China's northern borders and Japanese aircraft are circling over the Chinese capital. Germany is openly demanding the return of its African colonies, and it is unlikely that Britain and France, which have taken over these colonies, will acquiesce. Italy and Ethiopia are at each others' throats and their quarrel has already begun to involve other nations. The British parliament, for one, is in an uproar over Italy's military buildup, while Egypt feels uncomfortably close to the Italian-Ethiopian dispute because Italy has set its sights on the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana, the waters of which it wants to irrigate Eritrea."
Against this troubled backdrop, Britain's first task, in Al-Ahram 's opinion, was to win Egyptians' goodwill. "It should strive to settle the political differences between us, and this entails not impeding the return to the 1923 Constitution nor attempting to impose an economic policy that Egypt is disinclined to accept. It is a general rule that major interests require attention to minor interests. The major interest that presents itself to the political world of today is the need to prepare for war."
As the public's impatience grew, the newspaper's tone towards the Nassim government became increasingly critical. Towards the end of June, Al-Ahram voiced its opinion that neither Egyptian nor British officials were likely to volunteer information on their progress towards the restoration of the constitution. "It appears that all we can expect to hear, henceforth, is the voice of the people, and they will never flag in their insistence upon their constitution." Some government supporters attempted to justify its foot-dragging on the grounds that restoring the 1923 Constitution required issuing new electoral registration lists now that those that had come into effect under the abolished 1930 Constitution were illegal. They held that this could take months, during which interval contingencies might arise requiring the government's immediate intervention. Al- Ahram begged to differ. There was no reason why the government could not prepare for elections in a relatively short period of time, as it had a department specially dedicated to the required administrative tasks and sufficient staff trained for these tasks. Proof of this could be found in the fact that the Adli government, which took over from Mohamed Mahmoud, was able to hold elections within three months of taking office. "The current government would not even need that amount of time to prepare for elections, as it has been in power now for nine months, during which time it has had sufficient opportunity to familiarise itself with the details of administration and procedure."
It was not long before the Wafd vented its frustration at the government's procrastination. The opportunity presented itself in El-Nahhas's address to inaugurate the new premises for the Central Workers Federation in Rashid. He said, "The people of Rashid are traders and workers. They are not active in the field of politics. But you do not need a political philosophy or to be politically active in order to demand your right to a constitution. If the leader of the Wafd were to visit any other town or village in the Delta or Upper Egypt he would find the same sentiments and hear the same cry: 'Long live the Constitution! The constitution is for the people!'"
"In the 1919 Revolution, the people arose as one to demand their rights," El-Nahhas said. "The constitution was the first fruit of these efforts. It is not odd, therefore, that we have resolved to continue our struggle until we attain our dual right to a constitution and independence. The constitution has become an article of the Egyptian creed and the fight to attain it is sweet."
Obviously, El-Nahhas had issued a caution to Nassim and the British high commissioner, and British archives reveal that Lampson, at least, had understood the message. In an urgent dispatch to London he expressed his fears that workers would join the Wafd's armies of students, especially in light of Labour Federation leader Abbas Halim's close relationship with the party.
The unholy alliance between the Nassim government and the British compounded nationalists' suspicions that the former was not acting in good faith. Al-Ahram suggested that the Nassim government was weak, timid and hesitant, "which has lured the British into reexerting their influence in the country in defiance of the Egyptian will". The writer wondered whether the government was so weak and irresolute that it would merely bide its time until the international situation became so critical that the British would declare martial law in Egypt or compel the Egyptian government to do that for it, "at which point Egypt will become Egyptian in name only and British in fact."
By autumn, Egyptians had given up all hope in the Wafd's endeavours to cajole the government into reinstating the 1923 Constitution. It was time for a more direct approach. Expressing these sentiments in its edition of 1 September, an Al- Ahram headline proclaimed, "We want a constitutional government!" Under this it wrote: "Our situation today -- our patience with the Nassim government, our willingness to wait, the trust some of us have in British promises, our tolerance of their procrastination -- all this is the consequence of the emergence of governments that have been despised by the majority of the people, and there is fear that such a government would rise again." The editorial concluded with the maxim that the faithful do not let themselves get stung twice.
An Al-Ahram editorial five days later was bolder yet. Under the headline, "Only a constitutional prime minister can revive the constitution." It accused Nassim of opposing democratic rule. "He is by nature averse to constitutions and parliamentary assemblies because parliamentary rule means contact between the rulers and the people. When have you ever seen Nassim speak to the people and try to win their friendship? Has he ever issued a communiqué in order to defend himself? And this is his policy towards the press: he shuns interviews and only speaks to the men of the press from behind a screen."
Clearly, patience had run its course. If anything, the Al- Ahram editorial was tantamount to a declaration of war with the Nassim government, and a new episode in the struggle to revive constitutional life.