Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (633)
The first forged elections
Six elections held starting in from 1923 all went the way of the Wafd Party. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk reveals why
Subsequent to the issuance of the 1923 constitution, contemporary Egyptian history was replete with election forgery precedents. These mostly sided with the royal palace, with noteworthy approval from the British occupation headquarters in Al-Dubara Palace. The king's most important tools in such forgery were minority parties such as the Constitutional Liberals and the Watani Party. Yet the lord of the palace, particularly during the reign of Fouad I, also created parties specific to this purpose. They were usually short-lived, no matter how many royal tonics they consumed.
The writer Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad
In a confidential report sent to London in the spring of 1938, however, the British Embassy in Cairo stated that the elections held between 2 March and 12 April of that year were "unprecedented" in their forgery being fully evident and apparent. It had the right to state so.
A quick glance at the previous election rounds that had taken place under the 1923 constitution confirms the soundness of the British claim. Disregarding the elections held under Sidqi's term in 1930 that were boycotted by the Wafd and Constitutional Liberal parties, six elections had been held and in all of them the Wafd Party had won.
The first were the 1923-1924 elections held during the term of Yehia Ibrahim's government. They resulted in an unexpected win for the Saadists, to the point that even the prime minister himself did not succeed. The second were the elections of March 1925, which were held under the supervision of Ismail Sidqi, the minister of the interior in the government of Ziwar that was loyal to the palace and inimical to the Wafd Party. It employed all "means of administrative pressure", to the point that all the foes of the Wafd believed they had won certain victory. This turned out to not be true, however, when the new council selected Zaghloul Pasha as its president. The palace was then left with no other choice but to dissolve parliament, which it did less than 10 hours later.
The third elections were those held in May 1926, also during the term of Ziwar, following pressure from the English, Sidqi Pasha's withdrawal from the government, and a Wafd- Constitutional coalition. The matter ended, as usual, with the Wafd Party winning the overwhelming majority. Fouad then conducted an overthrow and instituted the government of Mohamed Mahmoud, "the strong hand", which halted the issuing of the constitution for two years until the fourth elections were held in December 1929, in which the Wafd Party also won.
The negotiations the Wafd held with the British failed when they turned their backs on the party. The palace then had no choice but to dissolve parliament. Yet it also went further and cancelled the constitution, charging its man Sidqi Pasha to draft another and holding the elections under its rulings. They were boycotted by all parties with the exception of Watani and those created by the palace, Al-Ittihad and Al-Shaab.
This effort lasted until both the term and constitution of Sidqi fell in 1934. This was followed by the governance of Tawfiq Nessim, and although the 1930 constitution had been cancelled, application of the 1923 constitution did not resume until December 1935, when the government of Ali Maher was formed. The fifth elections were held in April 1936, on the basis of the 1923 constitution. Despite the time that had lapsed, the Wafd Party won again.
It seemed to the Wafd's adversaries that there was no hope in eliminating it. Instead they had to play cards other than those they had betted on in the past, particularly after various leaders took charge during the reign of the young king. In particular, these were Ali Maher and Ahmed Hassanein, both of high rank, rather than Hassan Nashaat and Zaki El-Ibrashi. While the latter two had been employees of the royal palace, Maher and Hassanein held the highest of palace posts -- the head of the royal cabinet. Each had a long political past that allowed them to be movers and shakers rather than mere tools of implementation.
The first of the cards to be played was to do away with the old palace plan of forming royal parties consisting of a number of prominent figures lacking colour and flavour. These parties had proven to be astounding failures, and were replaced with a number of men from the Wafd Party who were known for their energy and differences with the leadership (Mustafa El-Nahhas and Makram Ebeid).
The first success with this was the removal of El-Nuqrashi and Ahmed Maher from the Wafd Party a few months after Farouq I assumed his constitutional powers. The head of the royal cabinet, Ali Maher, was behind the playing of this card. Before four years had passed, the palace's other man, Ahmed Hassanein, succeeded in dividing the most famous two friends, not only in the history of the Wafd Party but perhaps in Egyptian political history, El-Nahhas and Ebeid. This undoubtedly weakened the Wafd Party to an unprecedented degree.
The second card played was on the youth of the new king, who had not yet reached 18 years of age. He was quite handsome, and had a good reputation in contrast to his father, an old man who had passed 70 upon his death and whose reign, which lasted nearly 20 years, had been replete with political activity that did not win him the love of Egyptians. From the beginning of his reign, the new king made a point of executing noble and brave acts. Moreover, he married the slender, young Safinaz Dhulfuqar in a celebration that was an occasion to increase the ardour of Egyptian hearts fluttering around him.
The third card played was the palace's men investing in the mistake the Wafd leadership had fallen into. Following its success in cancelling the 1936 Treaty and signing the Montreaux Convention in the period prior to Farouq ascending the throne, the Wafd leadership had thought that the arena had been fully opened to it and that the palace and its men had no choice other than raising the white flag. It thus stepped up its violence against its adversaries. The "democratic discussions" held at Beit Al-Umma and the club by Wafd Party members were replaced with "royal decrees" issued by the "sacred leadership," as El-Nahhas Pasha's leadership was called at that time. This was not welcomed by many of the Wafdists, including the old mainstays, some of whom left the party such as El-Nuqrashi and Ahmed Maher, or the influential press, led by Rose El-Youssef and its famed writer Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad.
The final card was played by Maher against the El-Nahhas government and resulted in its insistence in retaining the paramilitary "blue shirts" organisation as one of the Wafd Party's wings. At that time it had existed for almost five years, during which it had committed all forms of violence, making the Wafd Party seem as though it had replaced its accustomed democratic methods with fangs and a campaign of clubs and daggers. The blue shirts were crouched in their camps, waiting for any signal from the leadership of the popular party to do away with its foes.
This kind of organisation ran counter to popular Egyptian taste. Nor did it please the original supporters of the Wafd Party with its popular history and democratic practices. Moreover, the blue shirts were spurred on by their growing size and weapons, and continued to attack poor innocent folk. Their mere appearance incited terror. It is certain that most Egyptians, during the final days of the Wafd era, had grown to wish that these elements would disappear, particularly after they were joined by many of the unemployed and those from the lowest reaches of the city.
WITH ALL THOSE CARDS IN HAND, planning began in Abdine Palace for new policies that would prevent the Wafd Party from returning to the two houses of parliament. It began its efforts by letting off experimental balloons. The most important of these was the recommendation put forth by the distinguished Abdel-Aziz Ezzat Pasha in a series of articles published in Al-Ahram. In them, Ezzat Pasha had warned of poor "selection before election." His goal was to make certain the position of Egyptians should the young king take a step that seemed unreasonable at the time -- abolishing parties and holding elections on the basis of individual personalities rather than partisan affiliation. Although the recommendation was unacceptable, those who suggested it were encouraged by the wide support it gained among a number of writers including prominent personalities such as Ahmed Shafiq Pasha and the well-known Islamist writer Mohamed Farid Wagdi.
Despite this, Ali Maher and the palace's men knew that it was nothing more than an "experimental balloon", as they realised that even if some accepted this opinion, not all would. They also knew that even if this idea were accepted at a time when the Wafd Party was suffering from weakness, with time it would be rejected by the Wafd and other long established parties -- the Constitutional Liberals and the Watani Party, as well as another party that had split from the Wafd at that time and was called the Saadist Union.
Comprehending this reality, they readied to enter the elections, but one that was unlike any previous battle. Their goal was to make the Wafd Party lose at any cost, particularly since the British presence that had stood as an insurmountable obstacle to implementation of its plans no longer held influence following the signing of the 1936 Treaty as it had in all previous election rounds. Let us follow the story from its beginning.
On Wednesday 23 February 1938, Al-Ahram published on its front page and pages two and 14, the names attributed to the candidates of the coalition parties. The majority were Saadists, followed by Constitutional Liberals and a few from the old royal parties, Al-Ittihad and Al-Shaab, as well as the old Watani Party, which was able to put forth only a meagre number of candidates.
It was noteworthy that in this long list, the majority of those who nominated themselves on the basis of the Saadist Union principles, were old Wafd supporters -- Aziz Mashraqi, Saba Habashi, Abdel-Halim Rafaa, Mahmoud Riyad, Salama Mikhail Bey, and many others, led of course by Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi. It was also noted that those who had differed with the Wafd Party's principles and had always refused to be part of its cadre, held on to their position after leaving the party. At the head of them was the famed writer Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad, who preferred to remain independent and chose to enter the Western Desert district in the elections, a striking contrast to the choices of prominent leaders. Ahmed Maher chose Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district in Cairo and El-Nuqrashi settled on the customs district in Alexandria. Yet it was noted that when one of the Western Desert candidates, Nasif Abaza Bey, learnt of El-Aqqad's nomination, he decided to withdraw from the race out of respect for the famed writer.
Although initially it seemed as though the elections battle would not differ much from its precedents, observers soon shed doubt on this first impression. As Al-Ahram wrote, "the nation will enter the elections battle in a new form. Voters have increased in number and electoral districts have increased by 23 (making 264 districts). As such, the Ministry of Interior has adjusted these districts in accordance with the results of the latest census. The outcome has been that many of the districts are formed of towns that were not originally registered, causing many candidates to delay nominating themselves or reaching understandings with the parties they are affiliated with."
The game of re-organising the electoral districts had begun that year. It sought in the end to intentionally fragment the districts in a manner that would prevent government foes from winning a majority in them as a first step in the path to forgery. But let us consider the related statements of the Ministry of Interior in Al-Ahram.
It wrote that these elections were held in accordance with the 1923 constitution and the direct elections law. This was the basis the Egyptian Wafd had always called for and which had satisfied the nation in the 1936 elections. "After that it remained for the government to fulfill its obligation of safeguarding the freedom of elections, candidates and voters [who are complaining about the re-organisation of districts] so that security is well maintained."
Al-Ahram called for calm elections and requested that candidates limit their election activities and political campaigning "to narrating facts without exaggeration, and to respect their competition, some of whom were their colleagues in school and who were only recently distanced from them by political events. After that, whoever wins representation is simply an Egyptian who serves his country in parliament. Those for whom victory is not destined for any reason related to the election's circumstances, their share is to voluntarily serve their country and fulfil their duties towards it -- they must continue to work for their country outside of parliament."
While the Mohamed Mahmoud government played out its planned role with care, the Wafd leadership was activating its popular bases as it had in all the previous elections. This was manifested in demonstrations orchestrated by the Wafd Party's committees across the country. In Alexandria there was a demonstration in Al-Attarin in which seven demonstrators were sentenced with a month's imprisonment with labour, while five others were fined 100 piastres each. In Qarmuz, three demonstrators were issued similar sentences, and in Al-Manshia this happened to 43 demonstrators. In Cairo, a large number of demonstrators were arrested in Sayeda Zeinab, and similar incidents took place in the provinces, particularly in Tanta and Samanud.
Up until this point, it seemed as though events were proceeding in their usual manner. Yet what took place next was out of the ordinary.
A FEW DAYS AFTER THE START OF THE ELECTIONS, Al-Ahram commented on some of the events in an editorial published in its Monday 7 March 1938 issue under the headline, "A nation intent on peace and order in the elections and otherwise." It read, "Political events have caused a split between leaders and workers, dividing the people into groups and parties. Yet the news we have received recently indicates that the extremist supporters of candidates in all parties are in fact the source of this malady. They are distributing sick publications and spreading rumours and lies in an attempt to poison the atmosphere. They are hurling bricks at houses and cars, and shouting crude slogans. There is no doubt that the police's mission has grown tedious and difficult, sometimes even impossible when these incidents have multiplied. We consider it counter to national duty and a violation of the spirit of the constitution under which these elections are being held."
It seems that what was taking place was beyond the comprehension of some readers. One, Hikmat Kamel, wrote a satirical article under the title, "Gentlemen! A little manliness, would you? An open letter to the heroes of the election battle." In it she wrote, "Is it manly for a man among you to lie, knowing that he is doing so? Or for a man among you to make a promise, knowing that it will be broken? Or for a man among you to promote his brother -- in manhood and nationhood if not in blood -- knowing that he is praising someone he knows nothing of? Or is it manly for a man among you to mangle the reputation of his opponent, in faith or not, and to use all available weapons in fighting him no matter their kind, even weapons of sanctity and other taboos that should not be permitted?"
It appears that what took place in this unique elections battle drove the objective newspapers, led by Al-Ahram, to ponder their possible outcomes. These were questions that had not raised in any previous elections. This was made clear in Al-Ahram 's editorial in its 30 March 1938 issue on the elections and their expected outcome under the inspired headline, "The appearances and inner truth of politics". It began by stating that the election activity would end in two days, "but that what we have seen of it so far is sufficient to indicate the results they will bring from a partisan perspective. For the most part the situation will result in splitting representative forces between various parties so that no one will garner a majority. In this case the government will draw its power from more than one party, and a strong opposition will stand before it."
The acts of brazen forgery the Mohamed Mahmoud government had decided on, and which no other Egyptian government had previously adopted, were revealed by complaints in the papers about the behaviour of government departments. One of these complaints was brought forth by someone who described himself as a "man of culture and refinement". He thanked Al-Ahram for the objectivity of its reporters across the country who had written to their paper about voters not being able to obtain their voting cards. He personally had been placed in this situation, and noted that this incident was more widespread in the countryside. Village chiefs had exploited the ignorance of the fellahin and their power over them and had kept putting off handing over their voting cards.
As typical in such circumstances, officials rushed to deny these accusations. An official source in the Ministry of the Interior issued a long statement that stressed, "After completing the registers of voters' names, distribution of voting cards began. All that was considered in distribution was examining the identity of each person receiving a card."
The statement added that "alleyway sheikhs" were responsible for distributing cards, and that if their distribution was obstructed in this manner, everyone with the right to vote should go to the police station and receive their card after having their identity checked and it being ascertained that their name had been registered by the legal deadline.
This official source's detailed statement on the matter ended with saying that the complaints brought forth had been contained within a restricted area and that there remained only some voters in seven districts of Cairo, Alexandria and Assiut. It claimed that by election day all voters would have their cards, but this turned out not to be true. Among the election forgery the government had intended, this activity was a primary precedent.
Another was revealed by the circular sent by the Ministry of the Interior to the governorates and directorates about the means of sorting votes in the imminent elections. It was decided that this would take place in two stages -- the first in the Delta region to begin on 31 March and with results to appear within the next three days, and the second in Upper Egypt to begin on 6 April.
Holding elections in two stages was not new to the Egyptian parliament's history. It had been applied in the 1923 elections for a logical reason -- one day was allocated for electing representatives and another for members of the senate. It occurred again more than 80 years later, in 2005, when they were held in three rounds, again for a logical reason -- judges were to supervise the elections and there were not enough to hold all the elections on one day. In 1938, however, the reason was different. As there was an intention to forge the elections, and the police forces were not sufficient to supervise the process in order to meet this goal, some time was required to transport them from the Delta region after fulfilling their mission there to Upper Egypt to complete the process.
It was one of the few times the Egyptian government resorted to relying on the armed forces. As Al-Ahram reported, "Observation was made of dependence on the armed forces to protect police stations, warehouses, and public utilities. Troops of soldiers were distributed in areas lacking police in the Delta."
Yet despite this, some small games were played in the administration to reduce the overwhelming defeat of the Wafd Party. These were conducted by the party's two leaders, El-Nahhas and Ebeid.
As for El-Nahhas, when the Tanta directorate headed to Samanud on 31 March, it was followed by a number of young men who chanted various slogans and formed a demonstration that filled the streets. It was dispersed by the police, who were forced to open fire into the air. This was followed by a wide- scale arrest campaign of Wafd Party supporters in Samanud. It seems that it differentiated between no one, for among those arrested was an old sheikh called El-Sayed El-Sirgani.
And as for Ebeid, who was a candidate in Qena, another candidate in the same district, Taher Effendi El-Amari, demanded that the Wafd leader rescind his nomination. Officials in the directorate denied the request, however, on the argument that it had been submitted during the distribution of election cards.
When the election results appeared, and their goal was met when the Wafd Party only won 12 seats, it turned out that both El-Nahhas and Ebeid had lost their seats. Moreover, these forged elections were succeeded by two new phenomena. The first was organised police campaigns to arrest Wafdist youth. Al-Ahram narrates how the day following voting, the Cairo governorate prepared a "military attachment" in which more than 50 officers participated to arrest members of the blue shirts and Wafd committees with a tendency towards rabble rousing.
The second was that the general atmosphere had produced a phenomenon that later transformed into a malady when a hairdresser in Cairo put his election card up for sale. While Al-Ahram did not mention his name, it did present the details of his case, which ended with him being declared innocent. And yet this incident created a precedent that, due to its later wide- scale spread, could practically be labelled a crime.