Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (618)
The political climate was charged when parliament convened an extraordinary session in October 1937, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk
Article 41 of the 1923 Constitution states, "if during a parliamentary recess a situation arises that requires immediate action that cannot be postponed, the king may issue the relevant decrees which shall have the force of law on the condition that they do not violate the constitution. Parliament must be called to an extraordinary session, in which these decrees shall be submitted for approval. If they are not submitted to parliament or if one of the chambers does not approve them, the decrees will lose their force of law."
During the first quarter of a century following the promulgation of the 1923 Constitution, Article 41 was invoked three times. On 23 October 1936, a royal decree was issued summoning parliament to convene in extraordinary session on 2 November with the purpose of approving the ratification of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. The deliberations of the Chamber of Deputies and then the Senate took a total of 17 days ending with the majority approval by both houses of parliament.
The second occasion occurred on 29 July 1937, when both houses of parliament were asked to meet in an extraordinary joint session for the purpose of swearing in King Farouk, who had just come of legal age in order to assume his constitutional powers as king.
However, when parliament convened in extraordinary session for the third time, on 23 October 1937, the situation was truly extraordinary in form and substance. In October a year earlier there was nothing controversial at hand. The Anglo- Egyptian Treaty had already been approved by all the political parties that had come together in the "National Front", the coalition responsible for negotiating the treaty. The exception was the Nationalist Party. It had refused to take part in the National Front, clinging to its long-standing rejection of negotiating with the British until after British forces evacuated the country. It was, therefore, not surprising that there would have been critical voices from this quarter when the treaty came to a vote in parliament in October, but they represented only a very small minority.
The same applied in July 1937. Indeed, on this occasion, parliament did not meet in joint session to deliberate an issue, controversial or not, but rather as part of the investiture ceremonies of the new king. The speeches that were delivered on the occasion by members of the Wafd Party and even the Nationalist Party brimmed with phrases of praise and admiration for Farouk I. Of course, no one at the time could have predicted what fate had in store for the country through the aegis of that fine young countenance.
The third occasion proved entirely different because of the charged political climate that surrounded it. This climate had its origins in a series of political crises that pre-dated the accession of King Farouk and continued through the summer and into autumn. For one, little did the Wafdist government know the danger it was courting when it had opposed Farouk's wish for a religious coronation ceremony. Within a few days after his investiture the king would get his own back by appointing Ali Maher, long time foe of the Wafd Party, as the head of the Royal Cabinet. But Farouk was only beginning to sharpen his claws and it was not long before the traditional hostility was revived between Abdeen Palace and the Wafd Party.
At about the same time, the Wafd Party itself experienced a rift within its leadership. The cause was a falling out between Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi, then minister of transport, and Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas over the implementation of the provisions of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. To the former, the treaty was only a means to an end, which was the final elimination of the British presence in Egypt. He, therefore, attempted to obstruct any cabinet decisions that did not move in that direction. El-Nahhas refused to tolerate this behaviour and ultimately excluded El-Nuqrashi from the new cabinet he formed on 1 August 1937. What the prime minister may not have taken into proper consideration was that the dismissed minister of transport was a close friend of Ahmed Maher, speaker of parliament and brother of the new head of the royal cabinet.
Two items that appeared in Al-Ahram on the same day that the newspaper published the text of the royal decree summoning parliament to convene in extraordinary session reveal how precarious El-Nahhas's situation was. The first posed the question as to whether Ahmed Maher would continue as speaker of parliament in light of the developments in his relationship with the Wafd Party leadership. In the opinion of the author Maher would, because a speaker was elected for a full parliamentary year and this term could not be affected by an extraordinary parliamentary session. To substantiate his argument he quoted Article 87 of the constitution which stated, "the Chamber of Deputies elects a speaker and two deputy speakers once a year in its first ordinary session. The speaker and his deputies may be re-elected."
The second news item pointed out that the government formed on 1 August -- El-Nahhas's fourth -- had not yet presented itself to parliament for confirmation. Al-Ahram wondered whether the government would be using the forthcoming extraordinary meeting to ask for a vote of confidence. There seemed to be some doubt among what the newspaper described as "political circles" over whether this was possible. The newspaper reports, "we have learned that Senior Royal Adviser Abdel-Hamid Bedawi Pasha has been charged with investigating whether the government can put the confidence issue before parliament in an extraordinary session and whether parliament has the right to issue a decision on this matter."
The reason that parliament had been called to convene in extraordinary session, as poorly timed as it was, was to ratify the Montreux Convention that Egypt had just concluded with the capitulatory powers, and to issue the necessary legislation for implementing the provisions of that treaty aimed at phasing out the Capitulations system. One of parliament's tasks would be to confirm a number of judicial appointments to the Mixed Courts under its new remit for a 12-year interim period. These included Fouad Hamdi Bek as chief prosecutor of the Mixed Court of Appeals and Mr Bean as public defender in that court. Both positions were newly created under the terms of the treaty. The new appointees also included Faculty of Law Dean Abdel-Razzaq El-Senhuri Bek and Cairo National Court public prosecutor Iskander Qasbagi as Mixed Court judges, and Farid El-Farouni as deputy prosecutor first grade in the Mixed Court prosecutor's office.
Parliament would also be called upon to approve two sizeable allocation bills. One entailed a government request for LE1 million allocation taken from the national reserves to fund the modernisation of the Egyptian army.
"One of the results of the process of strengthening the military will be a newly created 9,000-strong auxiliary force," Al-Ahram noted in this connection. The second was the allocation of an additional LE18,000 to the Mixed Courts to cover the costs of the new judges and other staff required to accommodate the expanded competencies of this judiciary.
In addition to the foregoing, parliament would be considering the seven bills of law for the Mixed Courts drafted by the Ministry of Justice. Finally, it would be asked to approve the promotion of 18 Egyptian constables to the rank of second lieutenant.
FEARFUL THAT POLITICAL TENSION between the palace and the Wafd and within the Wafd itself would penetrate the chambers of parliament during its deliberation over issues vital to the national welfare, Al-Ahram decided to pave the way for the extraordinary session with a series of articles intended to alleviate the tenseness in the air. Al-Ahram stated this purpose almost explicitly in one of these articles: "The writer takes this opportunity to allude to events that have affected our political life over the past two months, which developments one is compelled to declare to the reader render us optimistic not pessimistic. Perhaps the differences of opinion that have occurred within certain ranks leading to what may be regarded as a rift are, in fact proof of the political maturity of the people, their zeal for setting the crooked straight and their determination to undertake the responsibilities the new era has placed upon the nation with renewed effort and attitudes informed by wisdom and level-headedness."
In another article, Al-Ahram urged the Egyptian parliament to follow the example of the British parliament. The latter had just approved a monetary reward for the leader of the opposition in the House of Commons. In Al-Ahram 's opinion this represented democracy at its best as it demonstrated the desire to encourage opposition rather than crush it. The newspaper relayed a Manchester Guardian commentary which remarked that such financial encouragement was both natural and necessary. "The leader of the opposition has a great burden to bear. It is he who takes charge of the task of monitoring and criticising the government. This duty entails considerable expense, as it requires much research and investigation, which requires secretarial assistance." The article added that the conservatives, who were then in the majority of the British parliament, were "keen to ensure that they faced a strong, effective and outspoken opposition".
Al-Ahram also had a word to say on the possibility that parliament would be asked for a vote of confidence in the new government. The central question was whether the parliament had the right in an extraordinary session to deal with issues that were not contained in the royal decree summoning it to that session. In fact, the newspaper pointed out, there was a precedent to draw on. During the extraordinary session held in November 1936, Senator Louis Fanous requested permission to ask the minister of public works a question regarding the Mohamed Ali barrages project. He was told that because parliament was in extraordinary session he did not have the right to raise issues that were not on its agenda. Fanous responded that a parliamentary representative had a constitutional right to interrogate and that this right could not be alienated without amending the constitution. Because of the confusion over the issue, the question was turned over to the parliament's legal committee which resolved, "it is taken for granted that a member of parliament is fully free to exercise all his constitutional rights as stipulated in the constitution. However, it should be noted that in the case of an extraordinary session of parliament the call to that session is issued in the event that there has arisen during parliament's summer recess important or urgent matters that required hasty decisions or measures that could not be delayed. It stands to reason, therefore, that during an extraordinary session the time should be consecrated to the issues for which that session was convened and that the government and parliament would consequently be too preoccupied by these matters to address any other issues."
To complicate matters further, Wafd Party leaders met the day before the extraordinary session to discuss whether the minister of justice or some parliamentary members should propose creating a post called the Minister of Palace Affairs and annulling the law issued more than a decade earlier stating that the king would continue to appoint palace officials by royal decree. Of course, the proposal was intended as a response to Farouk's appointment of Ali Maher as head of the Royal Cabinet without consulting His Majesty's government and more generally it was intended to curb the powers of Abdeen Palace.
That same day, the leaders of the opposition parties -- the Liberal Constitutionalists, the Ittihad and the Shaab -- met in order to work out a strategy for standing up against the Wafd majority in parliament. Liberal Constitutionalist chief Mohamed Mahmoud was reserved in the statements he issued after the meeting. His party was merely keeping up with the latest political developments, he said. Helmi Eissa and Ismail Sidqi, of the Ittihad and Shaab respectively, were more forthright. The former announced that the members of his party had a duty to perform in parliament and this was to demonstrate that the actions and behaviour of the government conflicted with the public interest and violated the constitution and the law. Sidqi, who was one of the Wafd's most implacable enemies, lashed out at parliament's majority party and its government. The Wafd had returned to its old habit of placing partisan ambitions above all other considerations, he said, adding, "its handling of affairs shows little foresight and efficacy, which traits account for the poor quality of government in whole and in part... The Shaab Party has therefore decided that in the interest of performing its duty to the nation it will henceforth avail itself of all legitimate means to sustain its opposition to the government for as long as the current situation persists and it will charge its representatives in parliament to implement this decision to their fullest ability in both parliamentary houses."
AGAINST THIS POLITICALLY CHARGED BACKDROP, parliament went into session at 5pm on Saturday 24 October 1937. Security, of course, was tight. Al-Ahram 's parliamentary correspondent relates that police and the parliament's security guards had taken extra precautions to maintain order in the neighbourhood of the parliament building. Police had set up barriers to prevent people from assembling in the streets adjacent to the parliament building, and only admitted persons with passes entitling them to attend the parliamentary session.
Such measures did not prevent the Wafd from using its traditional weapon against its adversaries. Dozens of Wafd supporters rallied at various points outside the police cordon, to shout various chants in support of their party, to cheer the Wafdist MPs as they emerged from the session and to boo the members of the opposition, which some of the latter took as a form of democratic tyranny.
Inside the Chamber of Deputies, the people's representatives took their places. The Al-Ahram correspondent noted that when Ali El-Nuqrashi made his entrance through the central doorway, "the parliamentary deputies near him rose to shake his hand as he made his way to the back row seats among the majority members." The opposition leaders entered after the session was called to order. They had been meeting in the chambers allocated to Mohamed Mahmoud as minority leader. "They took the same seats they had selected for themselves in the previous session, on the left side of the chamber. The last to enter were the prime minister and his fellow cabinet members. These individuals were greeted by a loud round of applause from the majority ranks, which was echoed by members of the audience in the spectators' gallery. The speaker of the house took the opportunity to caution spectators against any outbursts of approval or disapproval or otherwise he would be forced to vacate the gallery."
Apart from that brief commotion, it appears that all present realised the magnitude of the occasion and were eager for the session to proceed smoothly. Indicative of this was that when the speaker issued the obligatory hail to the king, one of the Liberal Constitutionalist members reiterated the chant, compelling all other MPs, including the Wafdists, to follow suit.
Following the preliminary formalities, Ahmed Maher informed the house that he had received a number of inquiries from various members and that Sidqi had asked to discuss the possibility of a parliamentary investigation on alleged irregularities regarding the Aswan Dam electricity generating project. The speaker then expressed his view that the assembly did not have the right to discuss issues apart from those for which it was called to extraordinary session.
The prime minister, who was next to speak, gave an uncustomary short speech: "I am honoured to present the Chamber of Deputies with the acts of law that were promulgated following parliament's last session so that they can be reviewed in this extraordinary session. I sent these acts of law to the speaker of the house on 18 October." El-Nahhas then returned to his seat.
The speaker then announced that the constitutional matter and the bills of law had been turned over to the specialised committees for study. As this process would take considerable time, he said, the session would be adjourned until 2 November. That was a nine-day adjournment to which no one objected.
The Senate meeting that day was not as convivial or restrained. But then the Wafd did not have the overwhelming majority in this house that it did in the Chamber of Deputies. The session opened on an awkward note when Liberal Constitutionalist leader Mohamed Hussein Heikal, noticing that the chairs allocated for ministers were empty, remarked acerbically, "doesn't the new government have a statement it wants to deliver today?"
Soon afterwards the prime minister and his minister of justice, Sabri Abu Alam entered, at which point Heikal reiterated his question pointedly. His question, clearly intended to put the prime minister on the spot, triggered acrimonious clamour in the chamber. The Al-Ahram correspondent reports that in the midst of the din, Heikal got out of his seat and headed up to the podium. "However, he was intercepted by the speaker who whispered a few words to him and then announced to the chamber that Heikal would have a chance to speak after the Senate committees present their reports on the acts of law."
El-Nahhas then assumed the podium to deliver the same brief statement he had issued in the Chamber of Deputies, after which the bills were turned over to the committee and the Senate session adjourned.
While the various parliamentary committees studied the laws and prepared their reports, rival parties mobilised their supporters. On 25 and 26 October demonstrators took to the streets, some crying out cheers to the king, others chanting in favour of El-Nahhas. On several occasions, competing demonstrators clashed, necessitating police intervention to quell the disturbances. An Al-Ahram reporter noted that the police stayed clear of pro-Wafdist demonstrations and that he had learned that the police had received instructions not to interfere with Wafd supporters.
Meanwhile, the anti-Wafd press continued to urge that the question of confidence in the new El-Nahhas government be brought to a vote during the extraordinary session. So insistent was this demand, the Chamber of Deputies Speaker Ahmed Maher felt compelled to draft a lengthy memorandum on this issue. Published in Al-Ahram of 28 October, the document concluded that if an extraordinary session was to be devoted to a vote of confidence that session had to be convened on the basis of a majority vote of both houses of parliament, on the basis of which parliament would be entitled to exercise its full constitutional powers, including the right to call for a vote of confidence. However, if parliament was called to extraordinary session in accordance with Article 41 of the constitution, the question of a vote of confidence could not be brought to the floor if that issue was not among those mentioned in the summons to this session.
Banking on its widespread popularity and parliamentary majority, the Wafd turned the tables against its foes. On 31 October, the party staged a huge rally in Boulaq. Various speakers addressed the crowd, estimated at more than 10,000. The most important, of course, was the party chief and prime minister who announced that his government was prepared to answer any questions put to it during the extraordinary session and even to ask for a vote of confidence.
Caught by surprise, the Wafd's adversaries scrambled to assemble their ammunition. This took the form of a barrage of questions they fired off at government officials from the parliament floor. Sidqi wanted to know how the government was fulfilling its pledges to workers; Aziz Abaza wanted the government to account for plummeting cotton prices; Ayoub asked the government what it was doing to help the flood victims in the villages of Al-Mahsma, Al-Qasasin and Abi Soweir; Ahmed Kamel demanded statistics on crime rates from 1937 to the present; Kamel wanted to know how much the Egyptian government was paying to support British soldiers in the Canal Zone; Mohamed Allam wondered why the deputy speakers of parliament were meddling in executive affairs; Abdel-Rahman Lamloum enquired about progress on His Majesty's appeal to construct new mosques in Sudan; Mohamed Alawi demanded an update on the sewer project in Shibin Al-Kom; and Mohamed Abdel-Meguid El-Abd was curious to know whether the government planned to go ahead with plans to deepen and widen the Suez Canal.
This fusillade may have put the government on the defensive temporarily, but ultimately the opposition realised that it did not have strong enough weapons to topple the El-Nahhas government, even after the rift in its ranks.
As for the business for which the extraordinary session was originally called, that was quickly done with. After all, the acts of law, as we pointed out above, all had to do with the recently concluded Montreux Convention, with all the advantages that would bring to Egypt. Summing up this extraordinary session, Al-Ahram commented, "the members of parliament have furnished proof that if they support the government they do so knowingly and if they oppose it they do so grudgingly. Indicative of this is that although some voiced their opposition to the government, they shifted their stance to support and approve the acts of law that were taken on the basis of Montreux." So saying, the newspaper glossed over the tension surrounding the extraordinary session that concluded on 10 November, tension that would soon resurface dramatically and with major consequences.