Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (567)
Time to be together
Domestic and regional concerns in the mid-1930s forced Egypt's political parties to unify ranks. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk explains what pushed the parties into an unlikely alliance, as uneasy as that was
The month-long period from 13 November to 12 December 1935 brought a reversal in Egyptian domestic policy that few had dreamed of. On the first date, coinciding with celebrations marking National Jihad Day, protesters took to the streets to demand the return to the 1923 Constitution. On the second, the government finally responded to this demand, its hands no longer tied by the British opposition to reinstating the constitution.
Inspired by this success, the Higher Students Committee, formed during the protests, called upon the leaders of the various political parties to unite. These parties, in order of size, were the Wafd led by Mustafa El-Nahhas, followed at a considerable distance by the Liberal Constitutionalist Party led by Mohamed Mahmoud, the National Party headed by Hafez Ramadan, the two pro-palace parties -- the Shaab and the Ittihad -- led respectively by former Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi and Helmi Issa, and finally the Saadist Wafd, a breakaway from the Wafd Party, headed by Hamed El-Basel.
The first reaction of anyone familiar with the history of the Egyptian nationalist movement would be to laugh at such an appeal, for nothing would seem as futile as the attempt to fuse such mutual opposites. Mohamed Mahmoud had suspended the constitution for two years (1928-1929) during his term as prime minister. Ismail Sidqi held nothing but contempt for the same constitution which he quickly abrogated and replaced by one carefully tailored to his and the palace's purposes. This latter was known alternately as the Constitution of 1930 or the Sidqi Constitution. National Party leader Hafez Ramadan harboured a long- standing animosity towards the Wafd, whether out of resentment at Wafd founder Saad Zaghlul's ability to grab centre stage in the nationalist struggle from the National Party or out of the belief that the Wafd had betrayed the National Party appeal not to negotiate with the British until after the British evacuation.
Contrary to expectations, the parties concerned did not shrug off the Student Committee's appeal. Circumstances of the mid- 1930s dictated that it was time for "enemy brothers" to put aside their long-held grudges and join forces towards the realisation of a common aim. After all, all were of the belief that the government of Tawfiq Nasim had put off reinstating the constitution for far too long -- 13 months to be precise, ever since the government rescinded the 1930 Constitution. That growing impatience had escalated to protests and popular disturbances erupted during this interval made it all the more imperative that the situation be resolved. However, there were other compelling reasons. Above all, popular opinion was incensed at the discovery that this government had consulted the British high commissioner on what should have remained a purely domestic matter, as had recently been revealed by Foreign Office Secretary Samuel Hoare. In addition, it was commonly felt that the Nasim government was untenable because it had no base of popular support. That the king had originally only agreed very grudgingly to this government meant that even the pro-palace parties would be given the green light to join the campaign against the prime minister.
Several external factors also worked in favour of unity. The recent outbreak of the Italian-Ethiopian war not only created considerable tension in the international climate but the prospect of the encroachment of a European power on the major source of the Nile triggered widespread alarm in Egypt. In addition to the possibility of an Italian stranglehold over Egypt at the head of the Nile, the Italians already had a military presence in Libya, threatening a possible military advance into Egyptian territory should the situation in Ethiopia spin out of control or, closer to home, should the British order the Suez Canal closed to Italian ships on their way to or from Ethiopia. This fraught situation created one of those rare instances in which Egyptians saw eye-to-eye with the British occupation authorities -- both condemned the Italian aggression in Ethiopia and the Egyptian government joined in the international sanctions imposed by the League of Nations on Italy. Of more import to the domestic situation, both Egyptians and the British felt that the perils of the international situation demanded that they settle their outstanding differences as soon as possible, a prospect that appeared within reach since both sides had been on the verge of reaching a new treaty during the Nahhas-Henderson negotiations five years earlier. Obviously, Egyptians realised that a unified front would strengthen their hand in any new negotiating rounds.
As compelling as all these reasons were, they were not sufficient to ensure solidity of ranks. The parties also had to come to terms on form and, as had always been the case, they had three alternatives to choose from: a coalition government, a national front or a national government. Unfortunately, there also existed an innate defect in Egyptian political party life that hampered a resolution over this choice. Since the inception of political parties, a single dominant party always overshadowed a galaxy of small, minor parties. This was the case prior to World War I with the National Party and even more so during the period between the 1919 and 1952 revolutions when the overwhelmingly popular Wafd Party eclipsed all others in the field. The phenomenon persisted with the resumption of political party life in 1976 when the National Democratic Party assumed the uncontested helm. It should be added that in the first two instances, the galvanising force behind the popularity of the majority parties was the antagonism to the British colonial presence whereas today it is the organic relationship between the ruling party and the government.
This chronic imbalance greatly hampered the creation of the type of party coalitions one finds in Western democratic countries. Whether between two dominant parties, as has occurred in the Anglo-Saxon democracies, or between several parties, as has been common in Latin countries, coalitions tend to come into being when there are like-minded parties, unless extraordinary resources dictate a pooling of energies between parties that in normal times would ordinarily be at each others' throats. Such circumstances had arisen in Egypt. In 1926, the British refused to allow Wafd founder and leader Saad Zaghlul to become prime minister even though his party had once again swept the parliamentary elections that year. The only solution was to bring the Liberal Constitutionalists on board, giving rise to a succession of coalition governments, the first two headed by Liberal Constitutionalist leaders Adli Yakan and Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat the last by Wafd leader Mustafa El-Nahhas who had succeeded Zaghlul after his death. Thus came the consequent end of the British opposition to a Wafd leader as prime minister. Ultimately the coalition experience left the majority party with a very bitter aftertaste, culminating as it did with a surreptitious alliance between its coalition partner and the palace, which brought down the Nahhas government and brought in Liberal Constitutionalist leader Mohamed Mahmoud who quickly dismissed parliament and suspended the constitution. Not surprisingly the Wafd resolved not to be burned twice.
In 1935, extraordinary circumstances presented themselves a second time, as we have noted. But if the Wafd was not going to share power with another party, another formula had to be found. The solution was aired at a meeting hosted by Mohamed Mahmoud in his home from where Al-Ahram 's correspondent reported that the participants agreed to form a national front. Consisting of the Wafd and other parties, the aim of the front was to reach an agreement with the British on the basis of the proposed Nahhas-Henderson accord and the restoration of the 1923 Constitution. It was determined that each party would retain its autonomy, "in other words, there was no discussion of a coalition between the parties for the purpose of forming a government or of conditions for assuming power."
El-Nahhas was more explicit. In an interview with London's The Times, relayed in Al-Ahram of 20 December, the Wafd chief said that his party was determined not to share what it regarded as its rights and privileges of power with another political party. "The forthcoming government will be based on the composition of the new parliament which, naturally, will be a predominantly Wafdist parliament. The other parties will form a friendly opposition."
The Wafd mouthpiece Al-Balagh reiterated the party's adamant refusal to share power. It related that following the resignation of the Nasim government on 22 December, King Fouad invited El- Nahhas to form a coalition government. El-Nahhas declined on two grounds. Firstly, the notion of a coalition was against the principles of the Wafd on the basis of its previous experience. Secondly, he had pledged that in the event his party won a majority parliament and formed a government of national unity it would be manifested not in the composition of that government but in the composition of the delegation designated to negotiate with the British, which would consist of all members of the national front.
British archives reveal that the palace persisted in its attempts to persuade the Wafd leadership to back down on this position. Head of the Royal Cabinet Ali Maher, for example, attempted to persuade El-Nahhas that any agreement with the British must obtain the approval of all parties, which was why a coalition government was best qualified to steer negotiations with the British. El- Nahhas would not be budged.
About a decade and a half later, the parties explored the third alternative under even more dire circumstances. It was 1949. Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi had just been assassinated and the Arab armies had met an unexpected defeat in the war against "the alleged" state of Israel. Against this backdrop, the new prime minister, Ibrahim Abdel-Hadi, attempted to form a national government, an effort that once again ran aground because of the Wafd's stiff opposition. But this is a story for a future instalment of the Chronicle.
The foregoing background information should put paid to the commonly held notion that the national front that was created in 1935 was akin to a coalition. But let us now start the story from the beginning:
On 11 November of that year, page nine of Al-Ahram blared: "Latest news on creation of national front. Meetings of leaders and resolutions of their parties. Committee formed to draft position papers on treaty and constitution. Three meetings held with British high commissioner yesterday. Meeting between the prime minister and Sir Miles Lampson lasts only 10 minutes. Cabinet meets today. Government expected to resign."
In the reports under these headlines, we learn that the Liberal Constitutionalists, the Ittihad, the Shaab and the Saadist Wafd agreed that the front should work to accomplish two objectives. These would be laid out in two memorandums, one submitted to the king demanding the return to the 1923 Constitution, and the second addressed to the high commissioner, urging the rapid conclusion of a treaty on the basis of the 1930 negotiations. Two parties departed from the general consensus that day. The National Party refused to concur on the grounds that the memorandum to the high commissioner was against its principle of no contact with the British. The Wafd decided to withhold its commitment until it could ascertain the intentions of the other parties, in which it had little trust. Eventually, however, it came around to the position declared by the other parties in the front.
That the British high commissioner was now ready to hear the opinions of the national front leaders is the result of several developments. The most immediate, of course, were the "disturbances" -- as the British described them -- that had swept the country demanding a constitution, and the tense international situation. It was thus not long before the British gave the go-ahead to the prime minister. A royal decree was issued reinstating the 1923 Constitution.
On 13 December, in exultation Al-Ahram proclaimed "the return to the constitution is the first fruit of national unity." Referring to the change in the British stance and the subsequent royal decree, the editorial remarks, "as soon as people heard these great tidings they felt transported. A feeling of great jubilation pervaded all classes, and people hastened to congratulate one another on this joyful occasion... The news of the creation of a national front had been greeted with great joy and relief. The creation of this front had the immediate effect of altering the position of the British on the constitution and on Egypt's rights in general. Once the high commissioner and British journalists wired the news of and their opinions on this front to London than Egypt's adversary realised that it was no longer possible to circumvent this marvelous wall of solidarity, hide behind the Egyptian government and cling to the feeblest of pretexts... The return to the constitution is only the first fruit of the national front, and there is no doubt that had not this great event occurred, the British would have persisted in their procrastination tactics."
Nevertheless, the general euphoria could not conceal the tension among members of the new front, especially between the Wafd and the other parties. Differences primarily centred on priorities, with the large populist party insisting on calling elections as soon as possible under the new constitution and the others urging haste in concluding an Anglo-Egyptian treaty. Voicing the opinion of the latter camp, Mohamed Mahmoud declared, "we have obtained our constitution, however, this should not divert us from our highest aim and our common goal, which is full independence." In the same camp, Shaab Party leader Ismail Sidqi said, "the constitution is a purely domestic concern in which the British should have no say. To have asked the British for advice on this matter was a form of negligence with regard to the rights of the nation... As for our ultimate aim, it is independence. Do not let yourselves be deceived or to grow lax in the pursuit of this lofty aim to which our country aspires."
Turning from the parties' headquarters to the government, it now appeared to Al-Ahram that it was not about to resign, as had been the general expectation only two days earlier. "Everything had seemed on the verge of this development. Most of the ministers had removed their personal papers from their offices. However, the situation suddenly changed when Sir Lampson called Nasim and told him that he had received a telegram from London instructing him not to oppose to the return to the 1923 Constitution and to desist from stipulating any conditions or restrictions in this regard." The newspaper goes on to relate that Nasim decided to play a joke on his colleagues. "He entered the cabinet chambers that day with the gravest expression on his face and began to read the letter of resignation. Suddenly, he looked up at the despondent, downcast faces around him, struck the table with his hand and said, with a broad grin on his face, 'My friends, today is not the time for resignation but for the constitution!'" Clearly, his was not the most delicate sense of humour.
Over the following days, Al-Ahram was filled with op-ed pieces as well as letters from its readers expressing the ubiquitous exhilaration. "The awakening of 12 November to 13 December: How success multiplies!" declared the headline of its front page editorial on 17 December. "Now the matter of wresting our rights from Britain is only a matter of determination and organisation," wrote A M, as the author signed himself. "Weakness in either one of these factors will weaken our national cause. It is unlikely that the two sides will encounter unreasonable strains since they have already reached a form of understanding in 1930. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that our greatest weapon remains boycott and non-cooperation."
So inundated was Al-Ahram by "letters of jubilation" from its readers that it allocated entire pages to them. If the bulk of these letters contained little more than congratulations and other expressions of joy, a few merit closer consideration.
One is the letter from Ali Hafez, former higher education inspector, who wrote that an article of his on the subject had appeared in the British The Spectator. "Through my contacts with politicians and members of the press in London, it became clear that British plots against Egypt and its independence relied heavily on the obvious disunity between Egyptian political parties. I, therefore, trusted that the key to success resided in the unification of ranks and action. Now that my wish has come true, I would like to express my gratitude to the political party leaders, with my wishes for their continued success."
Another noteworthy contribution came from Issa Mitwalli, later to become known as "the most famous newspaper reader in Egypt." He wrote, "we have grasped the fruit of our unity and beheld the rays of hope that broke through those dark and raging storms to warm our hearts with the confidence that truth and right are on our side. To our unity goes the greatest credit for this victory, which will be followed by many more victories."
There were also letters expressing the sentiments of particular groups, such as the Federation of Bedouins of Egypt, who numbered over two million, as well as the organisation of the Masters of Sufi Orders in the Egyptian Kingdom whose letter appealed to "the one and only God to embrace the coalition of the nation with His eternal care and to grant success to all who are working towards the happiness of the nation and its people."
On 17 December, 10 days after the restoration of the constitution, the prime minister issued a statement recognising the national front. "The prime minister and his ministerial colleagues are relieved and delighted at the success of the efforts that have long been seeking to unite political ranks and form a national front for the purpose of realising national aspirations as soon as possible. We present our sincere congratulations to their excellencies the chairman of the Wafd and the heads of the various parties who acted upon their awareness of the requirements of the situation and did not hesitate to place the welfare of the nation above all other considerations."
The London Times found the foregoing statement ambiguous. "Nasim did not make it clear whether he intends to consult the united front in an official or unofficial capacity," an editorial stated, adding, "but there is no doubt that in his decision to allow the front to participate in the important decisions taken by his government, he seeks to ward off the criticisms levelled at him by the members of the front, some of whom mistrust him to a considerable extent."
On 19 December there was a moment of anxiety when British Foreign Office Secretary Hoare resigned. Nevertheless, Al- Ahram was quick to reassure the public that their fate was in their hands. "Britain will not concede any of its influence in Egypt unless it is forced to. British policy has always taken advantage of the rifts that existed between the Egyptian political parties, but once the national front was created the obstacles that Britain had placed before the restoration of the constitution vanished."
In all events, it was now time to put the national front to the test. This occurred with the resignation of the Nasim government, at which point the Wafd listed five demands: the creation of an impartial cabinet; the immediate resumption of negotiations with the British; the creation of a delegation for this purpose representative of all national front members but headed by the Wafd leader; parliamentary elections to be held on 2 May 1936; and that head of the Royal Cabinet Ali Maher be appointed prime minister of the interim government in recognition of the impartiality he demonstrated during the recent crisis.
The Wafd's demands were met to the letter. Elections were held on their appointed date and the Wafd, as always, came out with an overwhelming majority, bringing El-Nahhas to power for the third time. Although none of the other national front members were included in the cabinet, they were included in the negotiating delegation that was eventually formed. These included Mohamed Mahmoud, Ismail Sidqi, Mohamed Helmi Issa and Hafez Afifi. Theirs, however, was a purely token presence which became such a source of complaint and resentment that the national front soon crumbled. But then, such alliances between opposites rarely last.