Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (612)
Contention over the election versus the appointment of village mayors, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk, is a long one that goes back to the time of Khedive Ismail
Muhammad Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, abolished the iltizam (rural tax concession system) and introduced the intensive cultivation of cash crops that would form the agricultural base for the transition to a capitalist economy. He also laid the foundations for a highly centralised state, giving rise to the instruments for ensuring its direct control over all its inhabitants, deep into the remotest corners of the countryside. The 'umdas (singular 'umda, or village headman), were one of the most important of such instruments.
The first attempt to regulate this position appeared in an ordinance issued under the Khedive Ismail on 5 September 1871. Under its third article, a village or hamlet with registered territorial boundaries but too small to have its own administrative and magisterial councils could not be subordinated to the jurisdiction of a larger neighbouring village in whatever manner its inhabitants wished. Rather, the inhabitants of the small village or hamlet were required to elect two of their headmen to sit on the administrative and magisterial councils formed in the neighbouring village.
The following provision stipulated the qualifying conditions for the prospective candidates. They had to be agents of the government and propertied and influential rural notables engaged in trade or commerce in the village in which they stand for election as councilmen. They also had to be resident in that village for no less than five years, at least 25 years old, and free of any record of bankruptcy, established criminal offence or dismissal from an official post.
Articles 12 through 14 pertained to the electoral process itself. The first provision prohibited anything that might taint the elections with "bias, impartiality or coercion". The second stated that "the opinion or the majority opinion of the citizens of the village who have a right to vote shall prevail." The third stipulated that the voter registration lists had to be "submitted to the provincial directorate for review by the directorate chief or his deputy".
In its letters of formal investiture to elected 'umdas the Ministry of Interior underscored their representative function: "Whereas you have been elected on the basis of the people's good opinion of your suitability and willingness to oversee their affairs and their testimony to your rectitude and soundness of judgement, this document, complete with all emblems and seals of authorisation and notarisation, has been issued to you, charging you to ascertain the performance of their rights and duties, to advance their affairs and the fulfilment of their needs, to strive to better the circumstances of the people and to treat them with care, compassion and impartiality."
The 'umda election system remained in effect until the Urabi Revolution, which had the wholehearted support of these officials and rural notables in general. The British took careful note of this when they occupied the country in 1882 and began to establish their control over the internal security situation. Starting at the top, they installed an advisor to the Ministry of Interior and took over most of the chief of police posts in the country. Perhaps the most famous and longest serving of these was Russel Pasha, commissioner of Cairo from 1913 to 1946. The British also secured control over the constabulary, by appointing primarily British subjects, such as Maltese and Cypriots, as constables. However, the new system would not be complete unless it reached deep into the Egyptian countryside, to those towns and villages where headmen and elders ruled supreme. In order to secure control over these positions, Cromer, the British proconsul in Egypt, pushed for and succeeded in obtaining an amendment to the ordinance governing them. This took form of the Khedival decree of 10 March 1895 in accordance with which the 'umdas would be appointed by the government rather than elected by the village electorate. Henceforward, these appointments would be made by "a committee, consisting of the local directorate chief or his deputy, a representative of the Ministry of Interior, a representative of the Ministry of Justice and four notables from the directorate. This committee will also take into consideration the opinion of the district commissioner."
True, the new law expanded the authorities of the 'umda somewhat. He was now not just in charge of supervising the administration of law enforcement, irrigation, health and conscription, but he also had some judicial authorities. He could issue rulings on civil suits in cases involving claims not in excess of 200 piastres and on misdemeanours subject to a maximum fine of 15 piastres and a maximum prison sentence of 24 hours. However, he simultaneously had to be very careful how he wielded these powers if he wanted to retain his post, from which the authorities that had appointed him could just as easily dismiss him. And the new law gave him a number of privileges that induced him to work to retain his post. Two of his sons were automatically exempted from military conscription; five feddans of his land were exempt from taxes; and he had the right to free rail transport. In addition, the law stipulated that village headmen could not be prosecuted on criminal offences while in office and that the Ministry of Justice officials would have to be notified of any prosecutable offence and would have to seek the approval of the Ministry of Interior before initiating proceedings. In other words, the 'umda now enjoyed a form of judicial immunity, which had not existed under the old system.
Public opinion was not deceived as to the designs of the occupation authorities. After the new law went into effect, Al-Ahram remarked, "the British appoint only those persons whom they can be confident of their loyal service. It is as though they believe that in order to take over the country they have to kill all semblance of life in it. Thus, the selection of mayors in many districts went against the wishes of the people in those districts causing dismay among the inhabitants."
However a brief glance over the subsequent four decades is sufficient to realise that the 1895 law did not entirely accomplish the occupation authorities' objectives, despite the fact that it did work to strengthen a symbiotic relationship between the "British Consuls" in the countryside and the village mayors. For Cromer -- who mistrusted the "angry effendis" of the capital -- this seemed to be no small success, as he believed that the British presence in Egypt would remain secure as long as the countryside remained calm. Of course, it helped considerably that Cromer's agents in the countryside were proficient in Arabic and that the village mayors knew on which side their bread was buttered.
However, it later transpired that this relationship was not as solid as the occupation authorities had imagined. This became more than apparent during the popular uprising that swept the country in 1919. Not only did provincial capitals participate actively in the mass protests and rallies, but entire districts rose up against the central authorities, barricading themselves against British forces and sabotaging the railway lines, which were the primary means of military transport. Indeed, some of these districts went so far as to declare themselves independent from the capital, the most famous instance of which was the short- lived "Republic of Zifta".
Following the 1919 Revolution, one of the lines of confrontation between the nationalist movement and the authorities was over the selection process of village headmen. The former, championed by the Wafd Party, pushed for the return to 'umdas elections, out of the belief that if village headmen were free of the lures and constraints of the appointment system they would become akin to a strategic reserve for the nationalist movement in the countryside, playing a role similar to that of student activists in the cities. The opposing camp consisted of the British High Commissioner's office, the palace and most of the opposition parties, notably the Liberal Constitutionalists, representing the large rural landowners; the Ittihad (Union), a royalist party formed during the premiership of Ahmed Ziwar (1924-1926); and the People's Party, another pro-palace party formed by Ismail Sidqi in 1930. All these were keen to maintain the 'umdas appointment system in order to ensure that central government retained the upper hand on village affairs and to prevent the 'umdas, as one British high commissioner put it, from being "Wafdicised". Naturally, the protracted antagonism between the two sides over this issue would occasionally flare up into open battle.
IN THE WAKE of the sweeping Wafdist victory in the first legislative polls held following the promulgation of the 1923 constitution, the question of return to the election of 'umdas did not seem all that urgent. The Wafd was in power and it had a heavy agenda to attend to. It was thus not until the end of March 1924 that a bill was introduced to parliament to alter the mayoral selection system. "The current method does not give the people of the village the right to choose who is empowered as headman over them. The solution is for registered voters in the village to elect their mayors for a five-year term," the bill's sponsors argued. But, the bill first had to be turned over to the parliamentary committee charged with reviewing proposed legislation and then to the domestic policy committee for formal drafting. Before this time-consuming process could be completed, Sir Lee Stack, the British Sirdar, was assassinated in Cairo on 19 November 1924. The British delivered an ultimatum to Prime Minister Saad Zaghlul who was forced to tender his resignation, and parliament was dissolved.
In the interval between this and the restitution of parliamentary life in 1926 the matter acquired fresh priority. A new pro-palace party had come into being, the purpose of which was to promote King Fouad's influence in parliament and attract support away from the Wafd. Directed by the deputy chief of the Royal Cabinet, Hassan Nash'at, the Ittihad (Union) Party derived its support primarily from the rural rich, many of whom held mayoral positions and were induced into joining the party through the enticements or threats inherent in the mayoral appointment system. Then, in the parliamentary elections that were held in March 1925, the Ziwar government, relying especially on its powerful Minister of Interior Ismail Sidqi, availed itself of all means at its disposal to influence the outcome, one of which was to pressure 'umdas to come out in support of the palace party. Although the Wafd Party was victorious in these elections as well, many pro- Wafdist mayors had lost their jobs and the Wafdist leadership had absorbed an important lesson that it was determined would not be repeated.
On 22 June 1926, the MP from Fayoum submitted a motion to the house calling for the replacement of the Khedival decree of 1895 with a law providing for the popular election of village mayors. His purpose, he declared, was to create a system that would render the village "a distinct political unity -- an idea supported by all modern democracies -- taking into account the conditions and character of the Egyptian village."
The motion was the first shot in a battle that engaged all the major players in the political theatre at the time: the Wafd with its parliamentary majority, the palace where King Fouad plotted against the Wafdist-controlled parliament and cabinet, and, of course, the British High Commissioner's office in Cairo.
Soon afterwards, MPs Fakhri Bey and Ramzi Bey added their voice to their colleague from Fayoum. They held that only through direct elections was it possible to ascertain that villages were governed by individuals approved by the majority of the people. Selection by means of the polls would also uphold the dignity of the mayorship, for "it prevents that form of government tyranny known as administrative dismissal, to which the government has oft resorted for objectives that have nothing to do with performance, and which had long been a cause of corruption, rancour and scandal." Finally, the system would safeguard the partial autonomy of the village, for it would make it impossible for any but elected officials to assume control, even temporarily, over village affairs. Specifically, "it would prevent that practice, adopted by the Ziwar government, of ruling villages through the agency of police or army officials."
To drive their point home to the public, the sponsors of the proposed bill noted that the Ziwar government had dismissed 204 mayors, 173 in the Delta and 31 in Upper Egypt. The reason behind the dismissal in the majority of these cases, they said, was the mayors' support of the Wafdist candidates running in the 1925 elections or their refusal to apply the provisions of the new electoral code the Ziwar government had issued shortly before its collapse.
The MPs discovered that they had to defend their project against a number of objections raised by the public. It was argued, for example, that the election of mayors would generate chaos, because the system would erode the prestige of the post and because it would heighten the risk of it being filled by unqualified individuals. To this, one of the bill's sponsors countered that chaos was generated by handing the control over village affairs to only a select handful of individuals "who use the powers of appointment and dismissal they hold over this vital post as a means to attain personal gain, sate their personal resentments, bestow favours to their friends and eliminate their adversaries."
In all events, the parliament's domestic affairs committee proceeded to draft the bill, the text of which appeared in Al-Ahram on 27 August 1926. The first of the three sections of this bill stated that registered voters would elect the mayor of their village or directorate or district capital by direct secret ballot. This, the Wafd's adversaries would not accept.
On 6 August, Mr Henderson, charge d'affaires for the British high commissioner, drafted a lengthy communiqué in which he relayed the anxieties of senior Ministry of Interior and provincial officials. A system for electing mayors would place these officials in the unenviable position of having to deal with an independent political figure in each village rather than an ordinary government employee. Henderson also met Prime Minister Adli Yakan to express his strong opposition to the bill and his hope that it would not be allowed to pass. He then met King Fouad to voice his concern that the law would be harmful to the good administration of the provinces.
Soon afterwards, the British government let Wafd Party leader Saad Zaghlul know its opinion, albeit through an indirect channel. In one of its editorials, the London Times, which often acted as an unofficial mouthpiece for the Foreign Office, said the law would place the selection of village mayors in the hands of the majority party. It added that government officials in the provinces feared that if the bill became law they would be obliged to obey to contradictory authorities: central government and the village council. The newspaper itself strongly cautioned against the bill.
The bill was fated never to come to a vote. Officials in Cairo promised to restore many of the Wafdist mayors who had been dismissed by the Ziwar government and the Wafd, in turn, agreed to shelve the bill indefinitely. The crisis was thus smoothed over, although the contention over the election versus the appointment of village mayors would continue to seethe beneath the surface for the next 10 years.
IT WAS NOT UNTIL 1937 that the Wafd was able to resume its legislative project with vigour. Not only had the nationalist party returned to power the previous year, it had led the country to the successful conclusion of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which was crowned by its subsequent success in concluding the Montreaux Convention ending the notorious capitulations system. Also in the previous year, its formidable adversary in the palace, King Fouad, had died and a regency council was now ruling in the name of his son and successor Farouk. The Wafd leadership thus felt it was in a strong position to realise its long-held demand for elected rather than appointed village mayors.
However, as favourable as circumstances were the government of Prime Minister El-Nahhas took the precaution this time to order its cards very carefully. Its first step was to have its parliamentary undersecretary of the ministry of interior, Youssef El-Guindi, hold consultations with the representatives and senators from Fayoum and Giza. As Al-Ahram announced on 1 January 1937, the parliamentary roundtable would focus on several questions: Would it be better to keep the mayor system as it is or abolish it? If the former, what is the best means for selecting mayors and the best means to ensure that mayors concern themselves as much with development and health affairs as they do with security matters? Would it be useful in this regard to create village councils with certain judicial powers? Finally, what age, wealth, educational and other qualifications should mayors have?
The news item triggered widespread debate, to which Al-Ahram lent itself as a forum. Many came out against the idea of electing mayors. One opponent was, in fact, a mayor himself, from Akyad Al-Qibliya. In his opinion mayoral elections would generate unrest and public disorder. However, he added, "if there must be elections, then voting should be restricted to people who own at least five feddans of land. Only then will it be possible to avert civil strife."
A reader, signing his letter to Al-Ahram with only his initials and his credentials as a licentiate in law, supported this view. In his opinion, the current mayoral system was appropriate to the nature of the Egyptians and was basically sound, "requiring only minor modifications". The modifications he had in mind pertained to the qualifying credentials of prospective mayors: "They should be well- educated, come from a prominent family native to the village, and preferably be sons of former mayors."
Fahmi Abu Kurur, a doctoral student in Paris, largely agreed, adding that greater priority should be given to education. His proposal was to found an "'Umda School", in which current and prospective mayors would receive instruction in maths, history, public health, administration, sociology and national awareness.
The famous writer and literary scholar Aisha Abdel-Rahman, who wrote under the pen name Bint El-Shati (Daughter of the Shore), sided with this camp of opinion. She stood firmly against the idea of direct mayoral elections, although she did believe that prospective mayoral candidates should have to meet higher qualifying standards. Beneath the headline, "Will the hope be realised?" she proposes that mayors should be selected from the educated classes, which would alleviate the unemployment crisis among graduates of higher educational institutes. They should also be modern and progressive in spirit, in which regard she adds, "in my opinion, youth are better able to undertake the considerable burdens of this post than older people, for the blood still runs hot in their veins."
Most of those who wrote into Al-Ahram in support of the idea that mayors should be chosen by direct ballot also insisted on a number of other conditions. One was a five-year limit to the mayoral term. Another was that mayors be accorded a monthly annuity of LE10, "so as to enable them to devote themselves fully and properly to their duties." A third was to require mayors to submit monthly reports on the state of security in their villages.
A third body of opinion supported the idea favoured by the parliamentary representatives brought together by Youssef El-Guindi, which was to introduce the "village council" system in all of Egypt's 4,300 villages. The members of the council would be chosen by public ballot in which all qualified voters would have the right to participate. The councils would consist of no less than five and no more than nine members, in addition to two technical advisors, one a health inspector and the other an irrigation inspector. In order to qualify for membership in a village council, candidates would have to be residents of that village, have a high degree of literacy and be free of any taint of illegal behaviour or bankruptcy. The village councils themselves would be headed by the mayors who would still be government appointees.
Although the Wafdist government seemed to favour the village council idea, the proposal was held up in parliament for nine months. Evidently, there was some division in ranks within the Wafd Party over the issue, with one side adamantly insisting on free direct elections of mayors and the other pushing for the compromise solution.
Finally, however, the government came down clearly on the side of the electoral process, both for the mayors and for the municipal councils. On 1 December 1937, Al-Ahram announced the provisions of the new bill that would be brought before parliament. It stated, firstly, that village mayors would be chosen by direct ballot from among candidates "who meet the qualifications and conditions enabling them to effectively perform the tasks incumbent upon the occupant of this post". It also called for the creation of a "Rural Council" in each village, headed by the mayor and whose members would be elected by direct ballot "from among those candidates who possess the specific qualifications needed for the supervision of the health and urban facilities of the village."
Unfortunately, the Wafdist government had taken too long to arrive at this formula. A new crisis had been brewing that year between the Wafd and the Palace, this time over the phenomenon known as the "Blue Shirts". The conflict came to a head in December, precipitating the collapse of the El-Nahhas government on 30 December, with the result that yet another bill to reform the village mayor system was shelved for an indefinite period.