Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (587)
By the people
On 2 May 1936 Egyptians headed to the polls to elect their parliamentary representatives, the fifth time that elections were held under the provisions of the 1923 Constitution. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk surveys the nation's parliamentary polls and their politics
The 1936 parliamentary elections took place against a backdrop radically different from that of its four predecessors (in noting this fact, Al-Ahram could not help but observe that if constitutional life had proceeded normally in Egypt so as to permit elected parliaments to serve their full five-year terms, the 1936 elections would have been the third). The power of the palace at the time had sunk to an all-time low. After a long period of deteriorating health, King Fouad died about 90 hours before the polls opened. But the Egyptian monarch's illness was not the only cause of the palace's unprecedented weakness. The royalist era ushered in by Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi in 1930 was also crumbling, a process that began following the assumption by Tawfiq Nassim of the premiership in 1934 and that, with the support of both the British high commissioner and the Wafd Party, led to the dismissal of the king's powerful right-hand man, Zaki El-Ibrashi.
Because of Fouad's death, one of the immediate issues that hovered over the parliamentary elections was that one of the first responsibilities of the elected parliament would be to select the regency council for the then 17-year-old King Farouk who had just succeeded his father to the throne. Nothing could have driven home more palpably how the situation between the palace and the parliament was now reversed. After long having its fate determined by the palace, parliament now had a major say in the fate of the palace until the young king reached the age of majority.
Another phenomenon that would have a major impact on the elections was the National Front. Created towards the end of the previous year, the front brought together the leaders of Egypt's major political parties: the Wafd headed by Mustafa El-Nahhas; the Liberal Constitutionalists headed by Mohamed Mahmoud; the breakaway Wafd Al-Saadi headed by Ahmed El- Basel and the Shaab (People's Party), the Ittihad and the National Party led respectively by former prime minister Sidqi, Helmi Eissa and Hafez Ramadan. One of the major reasons for its creation was to ensure a united front in the forthcoming negotiations with the British over an Anglo-Egyptian treaty. Yet, it hardly stood to reason that a member party of the front should have the right to represent the Egyptian people in the negotiating delegation if that party failed to obtain the confidence of the Egyptian voter in the parliamentary elections.
Such considerations compelled the parties to reach some sort of agreement over the distribution of electoral districts. As the "minority" parties acknowledged the overwhelming popular supremacy of the Wafd and, therefore, realised how heavily the odds would be stacked against them if they pitted candidates against Wafdist candidates in most districts, they readily conceded that most of the districts should go to the huge populist party. However, a problem arose over the exact percentage. While the other parties felt that the Wafd should field candidates in only two-thirds of the districts, Wafdist leaders insisted upon three-quarters.
Negotiations between the two sides over this issue became so heated that they almost collapsed. It was only when the Wafd made it absolutely clear that if the other parties refused the three- fourths to one-fourth ratio they risked losing even the quarter of the districts on offer, that the minority parties caved in. As Al- Ahram reported, "Wafd sources have informed us that their party has gone ahead with the process of drawing up its electoral lists and that if it hears nothing new from the other parties it will consider itself free to field candidates in all the districts."
But having conceded three-fourths of the districts to the Wafd, the minority parties then began to squabble among themselves over how to distribute the remaining quarter. That they were ultimately unable to reach an agreement is evident in statements they released on the eve of the elections. The People's Party: "Our party feels that it will be unable to perform its duty to the nation unless its members have the freedom to field themselves in the electoral districts unencumbered by restrictions other than the need to maintain the spirit of concord." The Ittihad: "We have decided to enter the electoral battle unconstrained by any restriction." Evidently, these parties realised their chances were very limited given the confines of the small piece of the electoral pie that the Wafd had left them.
As the Wafd would be fielding candidates for 174 out of the 232 seats in the Chamber of Deputies the other parties had to contend for the remaining 58. It was virtually a foregone conclusion that most of these would go to the Liberal Constitutionalists, the Wafd's only serious rival. But still the situation was not so clear cut. The People's Party and the Saadi Wafd had yet to announce their candidates, while the National Party, which had turned down the district distribution agreement, appeared bent on boycotting the elections. In addition, many Wafdist candidates moved to field themselves as independents. That they simultaneously proclaimed themselves loyal to the Wafdist platform suggests that they had received at least tacit approval of the Wafd leadership. If this was the case then the Wafd's official blacklisting of these candidates was no more than a face-saving gesture intended to reassure the other parties of its continued support of their agreement.
Our suspicion is that the Wafd did give the go-ahead to some of its more popular candidates to run independently. Many of these would not have been able to resist the tribal allegiances and demands on their services that propelled them to run for parliament, even if that put them at risk from exclusion from the Wafd. Not that this should necessarily constitute a black mark on the mother party -- as they say: All's fair in politics, love and war.
On the other hand, the Wafd seemed to have lived up to its commitment to the other parties to the best of its ability. In certain electoral districts, the chief members of the National Front remained uncontested, as was the case with Helmi Eissa (People's Party) in Ashmoun-Menoufiya, Ismail Sidqi in Banwa and Mansha Al-Sabahi, Mohamed Mahmoud (Liberal Constitutionalist Party) in Al-Barba-Assiut, and Ali El-Shamsi (Saadi Wafd Party) in Al-Qanayat-Sharqiya. The Wafd also left the field free to other Saadi Wafd members out of the belief that they would soon return to the mother party's embrace anyway. Among these were Hammed El-Basel in Fayoum, Fakhri Abdel- Nour in Girga, Bahyeddin Barakat in Fuwwah, Murad El- Shariei in Samalout-Minia, Tawfiq Hassan in Burg Al-Arab- Menoufiya and Rushdi Al-Gazzar in Khalaf-Menoufiya.
Amidst great media fanfare, the Wafd announced its candidates on 22 March. The press then turned to those who had failed to make the lists in spite of their Wafdist credentials. Some of these realised that they would not stand a chance if they ran independently and, therefore, announced that they would withdraw their candidacy in order to keep the field open to the official Wafd candidate in their district. One of these was Mohamed Amin Amer, attorney at law, who had nominated himself for the Mu'tamidiya district in Al-Mehalla Al-Kubra but withdrew in favour of Mohamed Sadeq El-Sheshini. Others claimed that they had withdrawn their candidacy after having agreed with the Wafd upon an appropriate compensation, as was the case with Abdel-Rahman Awad in Hehya who was promised that he could keep his Senate seat.
Candidates who were not so obliging faced expulsion from the party. Among the many examples of this we have the report in Al-Ahram of 28 March stating, "The Egyptian Wafd Party has moved to cancel Saqiyat Mikki Mayor Mohamed Kamel Effendi's membership in the Wafd Party General Committee, Giza, for having refused to submit to the will and order of the party by running against Mohamed Shaarawi, the Wafd's only nominee for the Giza district." Similarly, we read that the Central Wafdist Youth Committee in Bab Al-Shi'riya had met in the home of its chairman, Abdel-Hamid Ibrahim and moved to "denounce Awad Suleiman Effendi for having deviated from the Wafd's nominations policy by fielding himself as a rival to Ahmed Hafez Awad in this district".
If the distribution of electoral districts among the National Front parties was a departure from previous elections, so too was Al-Ahram 's undisguised support of certain candidates. It praised Fikri Abaza, running for MP from Abu Hamad in Sharqiya, for his dedication to national causes. Like him, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Hafez Awad, Tawfiq Diab, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Hefni Mahmoud and Abdel-Rahman Fahmi were "worthy of representing the people in their parliament" because "they wield their pens in the pursuit of the rights of the people and in defence of the nation's freedom, independence and constitution." What all these candidates had in common was not their political party affiliation but rather their affiliation to the press. Al-Ahram declared that it was "proud to be represented by this team of eminent journalists".
As a sign of its support, the newspaper also published many of these writers' articles on the elections. Of particular note was Fikri Abaza's letter "to the Abu Hamad constituency" appearing on 30 March, on his past and present. "On my past you have heard of my contribution in Assiut to the 1919 Revolution. You know of my struggle with the military authorities, having followed it on the pages of Al-Ahram for 17 years and having watched it in parliament, in which I served from 1926 to 1928, and having listened to it on the radio through the hundreds of lectures I have broadcast in support of the fellah. As for my present, it has been recorded in Al-Musawwar magazine over the past three years and may be brought before the criminal court because of its dedication to the constitution and liberty."
Another new feature of the 1936 elections was the determination of certain sectors of society to make their presence felt independently of the traditional parties. Foremost among these was labour, whose parliamentary ambitions were expressed by Prince Abbas Halim speaking on behalf of the Labour Syndicates Congress to the National Front. Workers had to have their own representatives, he wrote, "because independence may be obtained theoretically through its recognition by the occupied power but can only be obtained in practice through comprehensive reform. Such reform cannot be accomplished unless the workers work together with employers and the representatives of the government in the national legislature."
If the fellahin did not have as high aspirations as the workers, they nevertheless had a number of "demands upon the candidates and the representatives", as an Al-Ahram headline read. If the candidates expected the fellahin to participate in their campaigns and rejoice at their victories, at the very least they should not forget the fellahin the moment they returned to Cairo and assumed their seats under the parliamentary dome, the article declared.
In addition there were new ideological groups on the scene, such as the Misr Al-Fatah (Young Egypt) Society which had caused a considerable stir upon its founding three years earlier. The radical nationalist socialist organisation had neither the money nor the social connections to field itself effectively in the elections, even if its leader, Ahmed Hussein claimed that the reason was that none of its members met the qualification age of 30. Nevertheless, he added ominously, "their struggle outside parliament will be fiercer than it would be in its hallways."
Another feature that made these elections stand out was that the government, this one headed by Ali Maher and brought in primarily to hold the elections, remained totally neutral in word and deed. Testimony to this can be found in the directives from the prime minister and minister of interior to provincial directorate chiefs to treat the candidates with the strictest impartiality so as to ensure the fairness of the elections and to convey this to all members of their staff and to the forces charged with maintaining law and order. The minister of interior added, "It has come to our attention that certain mayors and elders have demonstrated their support for some candidates over others and are actively working to promote them. As this is not in keeping with the principle of neutrality adopted by the government, we reiterate the need to abide by this principle and will take firm and severe action against those who violate it." The government backed this ultimatum with action. On 19 March Al-Ahram reports that a village mayor in the Qalyoub directorate was arrested for negligence in the drawing up of electoral lists, and another mayor in the Tanta directorate was under investigation for having misplaced the electoral lists.
Nominations closed at 5.00pm Saturday 28 March. Seventy-six candidates went uncontested, among these being the National Front members and many Wafd leaders, which left only 156 constituencies to be decided.
Apparently, there was still some confusion over who precisely the Wafdist candidates were. Over the next few days, the Wafd had to post several announcements that followed the formula: "The Egyptian Wafd Party declares that its only candidate in such-and-such an electoral district is 'X' and that it does not support 'Y' or any other candidate in that district." Other parties, it seems, claimed more candidates than they actually had. Mohamed Farid Hosni, running in Itfih, Giza, had to issue a clarification in Al-Ahram stating that he was not running on the People's Party list as he had resigned from that party during his previous parliamentary term and that he was now running as an independent.
Another feature of the post-nomination phase was the pre-paid announcements run in Al-Ahram by candidates who had won by default, in which they expressed their gratitude to their constituencies. Somewhat smugger than some was the letter from Wafd leader Ahmed Maher to his constituency, which read: "You have paid me a great honour with your valuable show of confidence, which has spared me the effort to fight to win. Because of you, no one has stepped forward to rival me in the polls, undoubtedly having despaired of his chances in advance. In past elections, I took great pleasure in the battle to win your trust and today I realise that these efforts have paid off."
Nor did it come as a surprise that Al-Ahram stepped up its campaign for the candidates it supported, part of which entailed offering them space on its pages. Fikri Abaza, of course, featured prominently, with the added benefit that his well-known wit helped to offset some of the grimmer aspects of the campaigns, such as the pitched battle that broke out between the supporters of rival candidates in Menouf.
On 3 April, Al-Ahram supplied a healthy dose of Abaza's comic relief under the headline, "The art of boasting and bragging in electoral campaigns". He relates that while visiting a village mayor in his electoral district, the mayor's supporters took turns in "boasting". Boasts, however, came in various weights and sizes. "There is the bantamweight brag, no heavier than a fly; there is the mammoth tall tale; and in between there is the ordinary middleweight vaunt." On that occasion, in the midst of a crowded assembly of rural notables, one of those present boomed out, "The honourable Fikri Abaza was offered a ministerial post twice, but he turned down the invitation, preferring instead to side with the people." Abaza continues, "I swallowed hard and took out my made in Al-Mehalla Al-Kubra handkerchief which I always carry with me during electoral campaigns, and I wiped the pearls of sweat that this mammoth tall tale had brought out on my forehead. At the same time, I did not want to refute this business about being offered a ministerial portfolio twice for fear of losing my friend and losing his cherished vote."
One would have supposed that the arrangements for distributing the electoral districts among the different parties would have kept violence out of the campaigns. But battles between the supporters of rival contestants erupted not only in Menouf but Damietta where the police arrested several of the combatants; in Mansoura where nine people were injured from the stones that were pelted during the fray that broke out in front of the home of one of the candidates; and in Maadi when Sidqi El-Daghshi and his supporters from Helwan paraded through that neighbouring village only to encounter cheers in favour of his Wafdist rival, a situation that escalated into a face-off between the opposing camps forcing the police to intervene and arrest several of the demonstrators.
Even though the results of so many districts were a foregone conclusion Al-Ahram was keen to urge voters to turn up at the polls. To a large extent this was due to the fact that these elections also stood out from its predecessors by being the direct elections instead of the two-tier system that had been in operation before. Thus, one editorial wrote, "By virtue of his ballot the voter becomes a participant in the legislative authority and an author of its creation as the legislative authority -- the parliament -- is the representative of the nation and the translator of its ideas. It is thus the duty of every Egyptian to himself and to his nation to avail himself of his right to vote."
As part of this campaign Al-Ahram launched a contest in which participants had to guess how many voters would turn out to the polls on 2 May. Naturally, too, of course, the contest would increase sales, as participants had to cut out and fill in the form published in the paper. The newspaper offered a total of LE250 in prizes: LE150 to the contestant whose guess was closest to the actual turnout figure, LE50 to the runner-up, LE20 to the third runner up, LE10 to the fourth and LE1 to the next 20.
On 7 May Al-Ahram published the returns. The Wafd Party won 159 seats, the Liberal Constitutionalists 17, the People's Party eight, the Ittihad five, the Saadist Wafd four, and the National Party three. Nineteen seats went to independents. "In other words, a total of 56 seats went to non-Wafdist candidates," it added.
The newspaper concluded its election coverage with some "interesting facts". Daqahliya had been the least competitive directorate as 12 out of its 18 seats had been uncontested. The most competitive was Sharqiya with only three of its 17 seats having been uncontested. The Maghagha district had the highest voter turnout and Cairo the lowest. The candidate who received the highest number of votes was Abdallah El-Maloum from Maghagha. At the opposite end of the scale was Habib El- Shaqanqiri of Menouf who received only seven votes. One's heart has to go out to the latter, for not only did he lose his nomination deposit, most of his closest friends and neighbours did not cast their vote for him, making him a rather ignominious entry into the Egyptian book of electoral records.