Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 January - 2 February 2005
Issue No. 727
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (578)

Royal help

Monarchical Egypt at one time followed rules governing succession. One of the most important of these was the creation of a regency council made up of three individuals acting as a guardian body that would assume the powers of the king until he reached the age of maturity. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk focuses on one such council established for the young King Farouk in 1936

King Farouk

After the death of his father, King Farouk I had to wait precisely 15 months and 14 days before reaching the age of maturity -- 18 -- when he could rule. During this interval the constitutional powers of the throne were assumed by a regency council.

Before relating this story, it is interesting to point out that the age of the new king was determined in accordance with the hijra rather than the Christian calendar, which is to say on the basis of the lunar rather than the solar year. A precedent had been set for this. When the Khedive Tawfiq died in 1892, his son Abbas Helmi II had reached the age of maturity according to the hijra calendar, not the Christian calendar, which complicated the question of the crown prince's succession. Although Tawfiq's father, the Khedive Ismail, had secured a decree from the Ottoman sultan guaranteeing the Mohamed Ali dynasty the right to hereditary succession to the throne of Egypt, succession still had to be confirmed by firman issued by the Supreme Porte. It was thought that the Ottomans would take advantage of the crown prince's juvenile status to appoint an acting governor, and the Ottoman High Commissioner to Egypt, Al-Ghazi Mukhtar had been aired as a possible candidate. Egyptian officials were not alone in fearing this prospect. The Britain's consul-general in Cairo, the venerable Lord Cromer, had no intention of giving Istanbul an opening to meddle directly in Egyptian affairs. He found the solution in religion.

After all, Egypt was a Muslim country, and it was only natural that the age of its ruler should be calculated in accordance with the Islamic calendar. It was the perfect solution. Not only would Egyptian officials embrace it but Istanbul, the seat of the Islamic Caliphate, could not utter a word against it. It was thus that from Abbas Helmi forward the age of Egyptian monarchs was reckoned on the basis of the hijra year.

The rules governing the succession would eventually change in tandem with Egypt's changing status. With the declaration of a British protectorate over Egypt at the outset of World War I and the consequent secession of Egypt from the Ottoman Empire, succession no longer had to be confirmed by a firman promulgated by the Supreme Porte. Then, soon after the cessation of hostilities, the Revolution of 1919 precipitated the Declaration of 28 February 1922 recognising Egypt's independence. This new status required new laws to regulate the monarchy. Of particular importance with regard to the subject at hand was the law of succession for the House of Mohamed Ali promulgated on 12 April 1922, specifically articles nine and 10.

The first of these stated: "A king that is a minor shall have a guardianship body that will assume the powers of the king until he reaches the age of majority." And the second: "The guardianship shall consist of three individuals who are selected by the king for the crown prince. These selections shall be registered in a document issued in two original copies, one of which is deposited with the Royal Cabinet and the other of which is deposited in the office of the prime minister. The documents shall remain in sealed envelopes until the death of the king, after which they shall be opened in parliament. The members of the guardianship body must be Egyptian, Muslim and selected from the following classes: princes of the royal family and their closest in-laws, current or previous prime ministers, current or previous speakers of the parliament, ministers or those who have occupied ministerial positions; members of the Senate and previous speakers of the Senate. Furthermore, this selection must be approved by parliament."

Egyptian history offers only one example of a regency council created according to these specifications -- that of the young King Farouk. When it came the turn of Farouk's son to assume the throne, circumstances had changed again. On this occasion, it made little difference whether the crown prince's age was calculated on the basis of the Islamic or Christian calendar; Prince Ahmed Fouad II was barely six months old at the time. In addition, Farouk ascended the throne after the death of his father whereas Fouad II was declared king after his father was deposed. Moreover, Farouk was deposed not by the sultan in Istanbul, as was the case with his grandfather the Khedive Ismail in 1879, nor by the British as was the case with his uncle, Abbas Helmi II, when the British declared a protectorate over Egypt, but by the Egyptian people through the 1952 Revolution.

Although the revolution eventually abolished the monarchy (on 18 June 1953), the interval following the deposition of Farouk saw considerable confusion surrounding the question of Fouad II's regency. Initially, the cabinet, headed at the time by Ali Maher, assumed the powers of the king. A week later, on 2 August 1952, a temporary regency "body" (as opposed to council) was created, consisting of Prince Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, Mohamed Bahyeddin Barakat and Rashad Mohanna. This body, however, had no actual powers, these having effectively been assumed by the Revolutionary Command Council. Indeed, historians of this period agree that one of the main reasons for the hostility that arose between Mohanna and the RCC was that the former actually took his title seriously while Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his colleagues had no intention whatsoever of allowing him to exercise the powers that ostensibly came with it. That standoff was resolved with the dissolution of the regency body on 7 September and the appointment of Prince Abdel-Moneim as regent, again in a temporary capacity and without effective powers. By this time, it must have been clear what the RCC had in store for the monarchy. Nor was it long before it took the decisive action, ending the dynasty that had ruled Egypt for nearly a century and a half.

In short, the regency council that was created for King Farouk in 1936 was the first and last of its sort. King Fouad was nearing the end of his life when Al-Ahram first broached the subject of a regency council, albeit with remarkable delicacy. The newspaper's management would have naturally been reluctant to discuss the subject openly for fear of being considered impatient for the king's death. This undoubtedly explains the following headline of 28 April 1936: "Between guardianship and delegation: the opinions of the British press." Clearly they did not want to be held responsible for the contents, even though less than half of the two-column article was devoted to relaying the remarks of the British press and the remainder to information on the regency council. In this latter section, the newspaper relates that King Fouad had selected the regents immediately after the law of succession was promulgated, at which time Farouk was only two years old. In accordance with that law, two documents listing the regents were issued, placed in sealed envelopes and deposited with the office of the prime minister and the Royal Cabinet.

According to the report there were conflicting opinions over who the king had chosen. Some believed that the documents listed the late Abdel-Rahim Sabri, Adli Yakan and Tawfiq Nassim. It was further rumoured that the king had re-adjusted the composition of the council after Sabri had died. "We have heard from a highly placed source that the document that currently exists contains the names of His Highness Prince Mohamed Ali Hassan, His Excellency Nassim Pasha and His Excellency Mahmoud Fakhri Pasha. We were further told upon assuming the premiership in the autumn of 1934 that Nassim Pasha had found the document deposited in the prime minister's office in the same state it was in when the royal cabinet sent it to this office." The newspaper was quick to stress that the above-mentioned names were based on conjecture; however, it added that several of those who had posited the name of Prince Mohamed Ali did so on the basis of "a rumour to the effect that His Highness had planned to travel abroad on 3 May but has postponed his trip."

Turning to the opinions of the British press on the question of the regency council, Al-Ahram reports that The Daily Telegraph ruled out the possibility that Wafd Party leader Mustafa El-Nahhas would be one of the regents due to the long history of tension between the palace and the Wafd. The British newspaper feared that El-Nahhas's exclusion could give rise to problems. "Will the Wafd accept guidance from the regents, especially on such fundamental issues as the negotiations with the British? Or will it go so far as to undermine the reputation and prestige of the crown and to threaten the regents whom it will regard as competitors?" the newspaper asked.

Officials in Cairo were only too aware of the predicament created by the king's policies. At the time of Fouad's death they were particularly aware of the fact that the law of succession required regents to take the constitutional oath before parliament -- but that there was no parliament. Although parliamentary elections were scheduled for 2 May 1936, the Ali Maher government felt it necessary to consult a national judicial body over what course of action to take. The opinion of the Governmental Issues Department, issued on 5 May, was not encouraging. It would be difficult to hold parliamentary elections within the constitutionally stipulated 10 days, it opined, adding, "If Egypt is currently without a parliament this is not because such a body has been dissolved in accordance with the pertinent provisions of the constitution, but because these very provisions have been rescinded one after the other and because the parliament that had been created in accordance with these provisions was also annulled."

As the constitution to which the ruling referred was the recently restored 1923 Constitution, the judicial body ruled out the possibility of reconvening the parliament created under the 1930 Constitution which had been revoked. As a result, there were only two possible courses of action: either prolong the 10-day period in which the regents were to be sworn in until parliamentary elections could be held or transfer parliamentary power to approve the Regency Council to the cabinet. The jurists were strongly disinclined to approve the latter alternative, which, they said, would breach one of the most important rights of parliament and which in all events would not have the same authority and influence as parliamentary approval would have. Instead, they proposed that "the parliament brought in by the forthcoming elections retain the power to approve the regents, until which time the cabinet will assume the legislative powers to which it is entitled since the restoration of the Constitution of 1923 as well as the constitutional powers of the king."

Under the headline, "The regency question: which parliament decides?" Al-Ahram summarised the judicial body's opinions on the matter. To the suggestion of reconvening the 1931 parliament, the objection was that the Nassim government had invalidated it when it rescinded the constitution under which it was sworn in. Similarly, the 1929-30 parliament was not considered feasible because the Sidqi government had rescinded the 1923 Constitution under which it was elected. At the same time, there were "numerous objections" to the proposal that the cabinet, having temporarily assumed the powers of the king and legislature, break open the seals on the late king's regency documents, approve his candidates and swear them in. A fourth suggestion seemed awkward. This was to wait until a new Chamber of Deputies was elected. This then would meet the old senate in order to approve the regents, after which the senate would be dissolved and new senate elections would be held two weeks later. The fifth proposal was to wait until both houses of parliament were elected so that they could meet in joint session. "The objection to this is that it is impossible to hold these elections within the stipulated 10 days in which parliament must meet to approve the regents following the death of the king, unless this condition can be overridden due to the compelling circumstances."

The Wafd Party disagreed with the judicial body's ruling. In its opinion, the 1930 parliament was entitled to reconvene and decide the matter, which it could do within the stipulated 10-day period. After all, this parliament was the last legitimate parliament to have been voted in before the Sidqi government abrogated the 1923 Constitution which had recently been reinstated.

In the hope of averting a constitutional crisis, which seemed at hand within only hours after King Fouad's death, the government held urgent consultations, firstly with the leaders of the Wafd Party and then with the National Front, which was made up of the leaders of all Egypt's major political parties. However, The Egyptian Gazette saw little hope. In its opinion, moreover, it would be a farce if either the 1931 or 1930 parliament were convened for the purpose, in the first case because the constitution under which it was elected had been abrogated and in the second because the parliamentary elections that had produced it had been boycotted by two of the country's major political parties.

Another aspect of the problem concerned the king's selection of regents. The Wafd was of the view that the parliament in front of which the names were revealed had the right to reject any of the candidates the king named. The Wafd's stance disturbed other political parties because it was a foregone conclusion that any foregoing parliament would have an overwhelming Wafd majority and would, therefore, appoint Wafd supporters as regents. They also feared that a Wafdist parliament might raise the age of majority to 21, giving a Wafd-appointed regency council four years to rule, on the grounds that this would bring Egypt into line with other countries on the succession issue and that this would give the young king sufficient time to acquaint himself with the affairs of state.

The royal family did not stand idly by as politicians and the public tossed ideas around. According to The Daily Telegraph's correspondent in Cairo, the royal family would be pushing to have one of its members on the regency council on the grounds that there were royal estates to be managed and this was a matter that exclusively concerned the family. Although the British newspaper did not mention names, Al-Ahram hinted that the royal family's candidate was Prince Mohamed Ali. This elder scion of the dynasty had recently held a half-hour meeting with the British high commissioner and a 45-minute meeting with Mohamed Mahmoud.

On Sunday 3 May 1936, the leaders of the national front met with the prime minister to discuss the regency question and which body would open the letters deposited with the prime minister's office and the office of the royal cabinet. As the meeting was held the day following the primary parliamentary elections which were expected to yield a Wafd majority, the participants were eager to reach a solution that would satisfy all parties. They did. They resolved to hold senate elections and the final round of Chamber of Deputies elections on Thursday 7 May. Then, on the evening of the following day, a joint meeting of both houses of parliament would be held. Although some objected that that Friday fell one day after the stipulated 10-day period for swearing in the regency council, Ali Maher quickly countered that the 10-day interval actually started, not on the day of the king's death but on the morning of the day after.

During the week preceding the anticipated joint meeting of parliament, Al-Ahram along with the rest of the Egyptian press fretted over whether parliament would accept the names recommended by the late king. The newspaper was particularly disquieted by the flurry of communications between the Wafd and the government and between the government and British High Commissioner's office. It therefore turned to its special correspondent in London in order to see what information he could pick up there. The correspondent did not disappoint the newspaper's management. He learned that no one in the Foreign Office was particularly concerned whether parliament approved the persons nominated by the king. He also learned that British officials did not hold out high hopes for Tawfiq Nassim, presuming Fouad had nominated him. On the other hand, they thought that Prince Mohamed Ali's chances were good because of the high regard with which he was held by all parties and because "he can be relied on to confer the appropriate dignity to his office and to work towards improving Anglo-Egyptian relations." Citing the Daily Telegraph, the correspondent added that the Egyptian prince had long been the royal family's prestigious member. "His personal wealth enabled him to champion art and science in Egypt, and he has hosted many artists, writers and musicians in his palace in Manial."

On the morning of the anxiously awaited day, Friday 8 May 1936, Al-Ahram blazoned a one word headline: "Today!" The Senate and the Chamber of Deputies would be meeting in join session that evening with the specific purpose of breaking the seal on the documents containing the names of the three regents, it wrote, adding that this parliamentary task was "of the utmost importance and gravity".

The newspaper went to reveal that while the letter that had been deposited with the prime minister's office was still sealed, the second, which had originally been deposited with the royal cabinet, had been found in an unsealed envelope in a private royal safe. This, of course, made it possible to learn the late king's nominations, who included Adli Yakan (now dead), Tawfiq Nassim and Mahmoud Fakhri.

Apparently, the political parties had already made up their minds to ignore these recommendations. The same article reports that party leaders had met with Ali Maher and settled upon Prince Mohamed Ali and two other persons who would not be actively involved in politics, or at least not have political party affiliations: Aziz Ezzat and Sherif Sabri. They also resolved to allocate LE50,000 to the Regency Council, LE20,000 to Prince Ali and LE15,000 each to the other two regents.

On the morning of 8 May Al-Ahram readers would have raced to open their papers to learn of the proceedings of what the newspaper described as "the greatest parliamentary assembly in Egypt's constitutional history".

The assembly was chaired by the eldest parliamentary member, Amin Sami, who asked all who were not members of parliament to leave the chamber. There followed several speeches dedicated to commemorating the late king. The prime minister and all the leaders of the parties that made up the National Front spoke in turn. One imagines the Wafd Party chief clenching his fists as he enumerated the virtues of that long time foe of his party.

After a quarter hour break, the members reconvened to hear the recitation of the government's decree hailing Prince Farouk king. The applause that followed this declaration increased in volume when it was announced that the new king had requested that the LE150,000 annuity that had been allocated to his father be cut by a third.

At 6.45, following a second interval during which the two houses elected their bureau members, King Fouad's letters containing the names of the regents were opened, although by now they contained no surprises. Later, after another interval, El-Nahhas, in his capacity as the leader of the majority party in the house, was charged with announcing the names of the regents agreed upon by the National Front parties. The announcement was greeted with loud applause.

The last order of business was for the regents to be sworn in before the joint houses of parliament. In turn, Prince Mohamed Ali, Abdel-Aziz and Sherif Sabri recited the oath: "I swear by Almighty God to uphold the constitution and the laws of Egypt, to safeguard the independence of the nation and to protect its territories, and to remain loyal to the king." "The members of parliament broke into long and thunderous applause following each of the recitations," concludes Al-Ahram. The 15-month, three-day countdown to the end of the regency period had just begun.

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