Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (651)
Head of the royal cabinet
To this day, the post serves as a direct link between the ruler and his ministers. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk reveals the inside story of this high-ranking position
Following the declaration of Egypt's independence on 28 February 1922, and the subsequent declaration of the monarchy, the court's affairs were regulated through the issue of a bundle of laws. One of these concerned the palace's administration system, one that changed its name from "High Retinue" to the "Royal Cabinet". It included six departments: Arabic; "Frankish" or European departments; medals; authorisation; accounts and staff; and finally archives and petitions. It was led by the head of the Royal Cabinet, who has a story worth telling.
Before flipping through his pages, however, it is necessary to point out that this post only existed for a little more than 30 years, until it was annulled following the declaration of the republic in 1953 when it was replaced with the post of the president's secretary of information. Most of the time this was held by Sami Sharaf, and because of President Sadat's nostalgia for the symbols of the monarchy, changes were instituted via the 1971 constitution. Among these changes were those that affected the organisation of the republic's presidency by bringing back the system of the cabinet. Zakaria Azmi was the most famous of those, holding the post to this day.
The story of the holder of this post begins in the era of King Fouad. His function was to head the palace's bureaucratic agency and serve as the connection between the king and the ministers. The conditions for selection to this post were that its holder be a former minister or premier. Its rank equalled that of a minister, and was assisted by a cabinet undersecretary at the rank of a ministry undersecretary. Most of those who held this high post during its first era (1922-1936) had their duties limited to administrative affairs. The lord of the palace, Fouad I, did not allow anyone other than himself within the palace to play a role in political activity, a fact that can be concluded from two matters. The first was that Fouad was always certain to select "non-partisan" men, most of whom where known for their loyalty to the king, irrespective of their personalities. There was Ahmed Ziwar, distinguished only in being "without taste or odour", and there was Tawfiq Nessim, who British documents described as being more "rigid than strong". The most important of them was Ali Maher, the rigid personality who directed all of his loyalty to the palace institution through awareness that it was the strongest and longest lasting.
The second was that Fouad left them to perform their duties and turned to lower ranking employees in the palace to use as tools in executing his policies. The most famous of them were Hassan Pasha Nashat, the undersecretary of the Royal Cabinet during the 1920s, and Zaki Pasha El-Ibrashi, the private royal minister during the subsequent period. Their influence spread throughout the government administration and in political activity to the point that it ended only through intervention by the British high commissioner to distance the two men. They were in fact removed from the country through the diplomatic corps, whose appointments were controlled by the lord of Abdin Palace.
Yet all of the changes that took place in the period between the death of that sly fox of a king in 1936 and his young son, Farouk I, ascending the throne and then assuming his constitutional powers a year later, left their mark on the holder of this high-ranking position. In the following period, he was no longer the mere head of the palace's administrative agency as he had been previously.
These changes began when the arena was completely opened up before the El-Nahhas government that assumed rule following the death of King Fouad. During its term, it succeeded in signing the "treaty of honour and friendship" with Britain and with this, it fancied that it had overcome the obstacles that had previously been a constant source of ruin, whether during the period of Saad Zaghloul in 1924 or the term of El-Nahhas in 1930. The following year, in 1937, it succeeded in signing the Montreaux agreement that rid the country of the capitulations system that it had always striven to shake off. It then gained membership in the League of Nations. All of this took place in the near absence of the venerable palace, which was represented by a weak regency council with no power at all.
With the role of the occupation powers disappearing at the same time that the role of the palace waned, nothing was left for the Wafd Party to do other than to do away with its partisan foes. To ensure their survival, it was imperative to rely upon groups of youth who were inspired by the paramilitary organisations that had spread in Italy and Germany at that time. They established what was known as the Misr Al-Fita group, which formed what was known as the Green Shirts. The Wafd Party then met them with a larger organisation, the Blue Shirts, who succeeded in rooting out the colour green everywhere.
These were the circumstances under which Farouk assumed his constitutional powers in July 1937. It seemed as though the palace was in a miserable situation, one that made it nearly impossible to return to the effective role that had been played during the reign of his father.
The Wafd Party strove through its policies to clip the royal wings. Among these policies was the attempt of El-Nahhas Pasha, with the formation of his government following the death of King Fouad, to annul the post of the head of the Royal Cabinet that was empty at that time. He would have succeeded had it not been for strong British opposition from the government in London as well as the weaker opposition of the regency council. The alternative to this was the establishment of a ministry for the palace that would be led by a member of the cabinet, in other words, placing the administration of the palace under this ministry. When this attempt also failed, another was made to appoint a parliamentary representative to the palace, but this attempt was also foiled.
A number of those who have studied these attempts hold that the person behind their failure was Ali Maher Pasha, the last to have held the post during Fouad's reign. He was the prime minister at the time of Fouad's death, and succeeded in leading the process of change that led to the Wafd Party's return to rule while adorned in the greatest degree of impartiality anyone had ever seen.
With his accrued precedents, and his position as a member of the Senate during the El-Nahhas government, he became a focus point for the opponents of the Wafdist government, the supporters of the palace . They viewed the Wafd Party as insistently attempting to attack what they saw as the king's "historical rights". He even played a role in encouraging those seeking to defend these rights, whether among members of other parties or Green Shirt groups.
Many hold that he was behind the propaganda efforts that were made in the interest of the young king before assuming his constitutional powers. Legends were woven about him, and a number of newspapers inimical to the Wafd Party and biased towards the palace since the days of the late king participated in this. They were led by Al-Balagh and Al-Muqattam, in addition to a number of magazines and the press of Dar Al-Hilal, particularly Al-Mussawar.
It was under these circumstances that the coronation ceremony of the young king took place, as well as his assumption of his constitutional powers. The situation was entirely different from what it had been during the life of his father, a fact that led to the beginning of a transformation towards the creation of a political head of the Royal Cabinet.
THE FIRST MANIFESTATIONS of disparity appeared in the vast difference between the young king and his late father. While King Fouad certainly inherited the "despotic genes" commanding the progeny of the Muhammad Ali family and all those who have sat upon Egypt's throne irrespective of their title, it is also true that when his father ascended the throne of the sultanate in 1917 he was nearly 50 (he was born in 1868) and nearly 65 when he became king. He had been active in public life when he was a prince, and had experience, something the young king naturally lacked.
Under these circumstances in which anticipation prevailed, the Wafdist government was shocked by newspapers the morning of 21 October 1937. Not more than three months had passed since Farouk had assumed his constitutional powers when a royal decree was published on the last thing the government imagined the young king would dare to do. The edict's text read:
"We, Farouk I, the King of Egypt, in view of the vacant presidency of our cabinet, order the following:
The appointment of Ali Maher Pasha, former prime minister and member of the senate, as head of our cabinet starting from 20 October, 1937.
That the deputy head of our cabinet execute this order. "
The surprise factor was stressed by Al-Ahram in its comment, in which it wrote, "It is understood that the government did not have any idea about this appointment until yesterday. His Excellency Said Zulfaqar Pasha contacted El-Nahhas Pasha by phone from the royal palace in Alexandria to inform him of the royal decree."
Its shock value was also confirmed by following the actions of the Wafdist leadership after being informed of the news. These actions were largely characterised by fumbling, a fact revealed by confidential British documents.
The first of the telegrams sent by the British Embassy in the Egyptian capital to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in London the same day that the royal decree was issued, made it clear that palace circles had intentionally kept everyone in the dark. A Mr Kelly, the writer of the telegram, interpreted this behaviour as the king and Ali Maher having wanted to prevent El-Nahhas Pasha and the Wafdist government from intervening as had occurred previously during the term of the Saad Zaghloul Pasha government. It also said that El-Nahhas was preparing to meet the king to put life into the new Wafd Party demand to appoint a minister to the palace. The telegram was also intended to inform him that the decree he had issued was invalid as long as it was issued unilaterally and that the king did not possess the right to oppose the appointment of administrative employees.
It appears that the Wafd Party reviewed its position the following day, specifically after El-Nahhas Pasha requested a royal meeting and realised the difficulty of parliament judgement at a time when El-Nuqrashi Pasha had split from it and succeeded in gathering a number of representatives around him.
It was under these circumstances that King Farouk met El-Nahhas Pasha on 26 October. The king stressed to him that the appointment of Ali Maher was not in any way directed against him, and that he and the head of the Royal Cabinet would always remain above parties and would fully cooperate with the government. The prime minister could only thank him and express his allegiance to His Majesty the King. As the British telegram says, the scenario of the entire meeting was put in place by Ali Pasha Maher. He was intent on affirming this in an interview conducted by an Al-Ahram reporter whom he told he had been stripped of all of his partisan colours "and solely served our lord the King on the basis of the constitutional foundation that states, 'the King is above all parties'." Al-Ahram 's reporter added that readers still remembered that after he had been appointed head of the Royal Cabinet in 1935, he had visited the heads of all parties and top politicians irrespective of partisanship, intention, distinction or differentiation.
At the same time, newspapers loyal to the palace waged a campaign to support the royal measure. Following the decree's issue, Al-Balagh wrote a long article that opened thus: "The presidency of the Royal Cabinet requires from its holder numerous characteristics not all found in other statesmen. Among them are loyalty to the throne, respect for the constitution, equal consideration of parties and organisations, fine action in matters, and prior relations with the palace and its duties and work customs. The plan on which Maher Pasha acted as a prime minister and prior to that as head of the Royal Cabinet indicates that he commands all of these characteristics and gives interest to all considerations."
Yet some elements within the Wafd Party who were members of the Senate caused some turmoil in the session convened on 24 October presided over by Hassan Nabih El-Misri Bey, the council undersecretary. A letter from Ali Maher was read aloud that announced the news of his appointment as head of the Royal Cabinet and made reference to the friendship and loyalty of his colleague senators. It declared that he had chosen to serve his king and lord, while the president announced the vacancy of the seat of the respected Sheikh Ali Maher Pasha. Matters proceeded naturally until this point, when El-Misri was taken by surprise.
According to Al-Ahram 's account, ruckus broke out and there was opposition. Opponents argued the illegality of the declaration when the council had not yet convened, "for it does not convene, according to the law and the constitution, except through the reading of a decree inviting parliament to this extraordinary session." This led Nabih Bey to order the reading of an invitation to convene. It appears that this small demonstration was planned by the Wafdist leadership, which can be concluded by the fact that the session convened 20 minutes late and that one of the ministers was absent.
In application of the policy of appeasement decided upon by the cunning head of the Royal Cabinet, the following weeks witnessed an excess of complimentary visits exchanged with the prime minister. He was intent on photographs of these meetings being prominently displayed on the front pages of the papers, especially Al-Ahram. He also gave numerous statements affirming the good relations between the palace and the government. He even said in his statement to Al-Nil newspaper that His Majesty was above all parties and that his affection stretched to all his subjects without exception. "While His Majesty is fiercely loyal to the constitution, his only goal is the well-being of his people."
Yet time proved the short life of this policy.
AFTER ABOUT A MONTH of following this policy of appeasement, Ali Pasha Maher was convinced that its goal had been met and he started to stir things against the Wafdist government. The opposition submitted a petition to the palace listing a series of accusations against the El-Nahhas government, and the head of the Royal Cabinet had a finger in it.
This petition was the virtual starting point for the accumulation of sources of difference between the palace and the Wafdist government. Firstly, there was the dispute over the appointment of some members of Senate when two seats became vacant and the palace agreed to only one of the government's two candidates. Another dispute revolved around the king's desire, on the counsel of Ali Maher of course, for the army to pledge allegiance to him rather than the government, who held that such an oath entailed loyalty to the constitution. It thus granted the army the right to intervene in the case of any power violating the constitution. It was understood that the king was at the forefront of any such powers and that it thus implied the army's intervention against the king. Naturally, the palace rejected this suggestion. A third dispute resulted from the king's refusal to sign a law increasing the allocation of authorised slush funds, for Ali Maher knew that the Wafd Party spent them on the Blue Shirts as its primary means of placing pressure on the palace.
Despite the attempts exerted by the British Embassy in Cairo to resolve the crisis, it was clear that the head of the Royal Cabinet was determined to do away with the El-Nahhas government by exploiting the mistakes the Wafd Party fell into. These included the organisation of massive demonstrations in which "The Wafd or revolution" was chanted, something that did not much please Sir Miles Lampson. With him, Ali Maher was able to neutralise the situation, at the same time that he succeeded, through his contacts, to organise counter demonstrations of Al-Azhar students and members of the Green Shirts at Abdin Palace. The king came out on the balcony more than once to greet the participants gathered there.
The Wafdist government's situation grew more critical when, in the midst of the crisis, Ahmed Maher, the head of the Wafdist council of representatives, issued a statement condemning it, saying it had ruined security, education, and workers, had restricted freedoms, and had not served as a sound example of government.
The final arrow in Ali Maher's sling was the suggestion he proposed to form a ruling committee to look into the differences between the two sides and composed of former prime ministers, ministers of law, top royal counsels, and heads of the council of representatives, senate, and court of cassation. While the government accepted the idea, it refused to form a committee in the manner proposed, and wanted a committee of parliament members, the majority of whom were Wafdists, to undertake the mission. This led the matter to a dead end, which is exactly what the head of the royal court wanted. A royal decree was issued to dismiss the fourth El-Nahhas government on 30 December 1937.
Yet this success was only a first step towards reaffirming the new phenomenon that had been known in the early years of King Farouk's reign -- that of the political head of the royal court.
It appears that a different mindset was used to deal with the situation following the dismissal of the Wafdist government. The palace did not form a "royal government" based on its men with no popularity. Neither did it form a party loyal to the palace as had previously happened more than once, nor attempt to change or obstruct the constitution.
The first thing that happened was the formation of a government led by one of the strongest political figures outside of the Wafd Party, Muhammad Mahmoud Pasha, that included all of the "non-Wafdist" orientations and three former prime ministers, Ismail Sidqi and Abdel-Fattah Yehya alongside Muhammad Mahmoud. It also included a number of the first generation in the 1919 Revolution, including Abdel-Aziz Fahmi and Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed. Even the loyalist newspapers described it as a national government, although some writings described it as a government of "top personalities". In this it differed from the dismissed government, which, following its second formation, had consisted solely of men loyal to Makram Ebeid Pasha.
Yet matters were not easy for the new head of the Royal Cabinet. Envy arose in the heart of the prime minister, Muhammad Mahmoud Pasha, who believed that he was responsible for the success achieved. Ali Maher put an end to this when the palace forcefully intervened in the election round that took place in Lower Egypt after the Liberal Constitutionalists had won a large number of seats in Upper Egypt and the situation was thus reversed.
Yet the head of the Royal Cabinet did not suffice with his policies to support his position within and beyond the palace. Al-Ahram 's 9 May issue published a large headline stating "Ali Maher Pasha resigns as head of the Royal Cabinet," followed by the text of his resignation, which read as follows. "My lord, now that the difficulties that had surrounded the adjustment of the current government have been resolved, personal circumstances prompt me to submit my resignation from the presidency of the high cabinet to Your Majesty. I would be pleased if my lord accepted my most gracious thanks for the sympathy and careful consideration he has granted me. I ask God to grant His Majesty blessings and success."
Al-Ahram commented on this resignation by describing it as a surprise and saying that interest in it "obscured everything else preoccupying minds these days". And while Al-Ahram could not offer an explanation for it, however, confidential British documents did.
These documents state that the resignation was nothing more than one of the manoeuvres of the head of the Royal Cabinet, a man who characterised his foes as conspirators. They say that it came as a response to the attempts of Muhammad Mahmoud Pasha when he made an adjustment to his government without consulting the head of the Royal Cabinet, who wanted to make him understand that the real centre of power was in Abdin. At the same time, Ali Maher had sensed attempts from within the palace to influence the king coming from Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, who had raised Farouk and was a strong influence on him. He considered this a form of conspiracy against him, and decided to test his power with the surprise resignation.
The head of the Royal Cabinet succeeded in his test. The following day, Al-Ahram published another large headline in the same position stating, "The King rejects the resignation of Ali Maher Pasha and praises his loyalty and devotion to his nation and his King." The text of the royal decree read as follows. "With our appreciation of your personal circumstances, it will please us for you, always a supreme exemplar of devotion and loyalty to your nation and your King, to continue in the presidency of our cabinet given your sincere resolution and full aptitude we are acquainted with."
This final manoeuvre effectively cut short talk about the politicisation of the post of the head of the Royal Cabinet, particularly as it subsequently earned the title of "Excellency". A number of those who later held this post followed the same course, including Ahmed Hassanein Pasha himself.