Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (664)
End of strong hand
Mohamed Mahmoud, four times Egypt's prime minister, had a legendary firmness by which he formed his first government in 1928. However, by the time of his last Cabinet in 1939, Mahmoud's stature had diminished to something much less. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk traces Mahmoud's political life, from strength to weakness
I am honoured to convey to Your Majesty that the doctors have ordered total rest for a period of time. Yet the precarious state of international conditions imposes upon me continuous effort my health can no longer bear. And therefore, I have the honour of submitting my resignation to Your Highness and Majesty, hoping that you are graciously disposed towards accepting it. I will not forget the signs of sympathy and satisfaction I received from Your Majesty during the term of my government, nor the manifestations of trust and support. My heart and tongue will not tire from repeating the most sincere praise of and affirming the most faithful loyalty to your noble self. I strongly hope that the country, under the protection of Your Majesty and thanks to your love of it and your long hours working for its good, will move forward on the path of advancement and glory.
May God grant you a long life... etc -- Mohamed Mahmoud
This was the text of the resignation of Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha's fourth and final government as published in Al-Ahram 's 14 August 1939 issue. Mohamed Mahmoud had gained renown for having a "strong hand" during his first government formed in 1928. The texts' statement about his poor health was not a pretext to save face as he departed the government; it was true this time. The man lived for less than 18 months after that, most of which he spent in his sickbed until passing away on 1 February 1941.
Mahmoud was a unique personality among Egyptian political figures, and his uniqueness stemmed from a number of sources. He was born to a family considered political by the understanding of that age. His father, Mahmoud Pasha Suleiman, was deputy head of the Law Consultation (Shura) Council and a large agricultural landowner in Upper Egypt, on Salim bank in Assiut. He inherited 1,600 feddans of land there, and became the head of the Umma Party when it was formed in 1907.
Following this beginning, Mohamed Mahmoud earned a distinguished education. While the prominent personalities of the age usually sent their children to complete their education in French universities (Sorbonne and Montpellier received the greatest number, particularly in their law colleges), the most prominent notable of Upper Egypt, Suleiman Pasha, sent his grandson to Oxford University. There he specialised in history.
With this social status and unique education, the young man formed strong relationships with the men of the British occupation administration in Egypt. He worked as an assistant to consultants to the English in the ministries of finance and the interior. He then leaped ahead and became the director of Beheira, but did not succeed in cooperating with the English officials in the directorate and soon lost his post. This marked the beginning of his political career.
The 1919 Revolution was the golden door through which Mohamed Mahmoud entered to form his career. As most of the leaders of this revolution had come from the leadership of the Umma Party, which had halted its activities with the start of World War II, it was natural for the son of the party's president to join them. This was underlined when Mahmoud was among the three who were exiled in March 1919 with Saad Zaghloul to Malta, one of the most important causes of the revolution.
Despite the exile not surpassing a month, signs of Mohamed Mahmoud's special status began to show in Valleta, the island's capital. This was aided by the fact that he was the youngest, for he had only passed the age of 40 by two years while Ismail Sidqi was two years older than him and Hamad El-Sabil was seven years older. The age difference between him and Saad Zaghloul was almost 20 years. This was also aided by the fact that he was the wealthiest and descended from the most established social standing.
This is perhaps what led him to some forms of behaviour that were the source of complaints made by Saad Zaghloul in his memoirs, such as his insistence on sleeping in a private room, having a special lunch and other daily behaviour stemming from a sense of distinction. This was exacerbated by his command of English in contrast to Zaghloul and Sidqi with their French education, and El-Basil, who belonged to neither English nor French culture. He was their only source of information to the outside world through his reading of an English-language newspaper issued in Malta.
The British authorities permitted the four leaders to travel to Paris after the reconciliation conference had acknowledged the protectorate over Egypt. This recognition had been shared by the American President Wilson, whose principle of the right to self-determination Egyptians had pinned high hopes on. This drove the Wafd Party to send Mahmoud to the United States of America to work with the American judge Falk on promoting the Egyptian cause.
The university graduate's importance was highlighted again when Lord Milner agreed to open the door to negotiations with the Egyptian delegation, leading the Wafd Party to summon Mahmoud from America to travel to Paris and participate in the negotiations. He soon headed the four sent by the delegation to Egypt to discern the opinion of Egyptians on the British proposals that Saad Zaghloul had decided to reject through his communications with the delegation's secretary in Cairo, Abdel-Rahman Bey.
This situation did not please Mahmoud and his companions, who left Zaghloul's Wafd Party in the first split in its history. This was the split that paved the way for the subsequent formation of the Liberal Constitutionalists Party, particularly following the escalation of the dispute between Zaghloul and Adli Yeken over the presidency of the delegation negotiating with the English.
Mahmoud remained the strongest personality in the new party even though he did not assume its presidency until a late stage (1929). During the period stretching from the issue of the 1923 constitution and the subsequent elections in which the Wafd Party secured a crushing victory, on the one hand, and 1939 when he withdrew from political life for good after having led the government for two terms, on the other, this Upper Egyptian politician did what no one before him had done, not even Ismail Sidqi, renowned for his departure from the rules of the constitutional game.
Mahmoud was the only one of the old-time Wafd Party men to have sought to take control of the Wafd Party from within. He grasped the opportunity of Saad Zaghloul's death in 1927 and the ensuing struggle over the presidency of the Wafd Party, holding that he was the most deserving of its presidency among the contenders until Mustafa El-Nahhas won it.
He was the only government man to have dared to suspend the entire constitution and declare that he would rule with firmness to put an end to the muddled conditions resulting from partisan rule. The speeches he gave during this period, which were later collected in the book "The strong hand", indicate the man's insistence on overlooking constitutional rule. This is exactly what took place in 1928 and 1929.
This is something the king did not dare do through his man Ahmed Ziwar (1924-1926). All he did during the term of Ziwar's governments was to delay elections under the pretext of making constitutional amendments. Nor did Ismail Sidqi (1930-1934) dare to do this. His term saw attempts to amend the 1923 constitution, and ended with its replacement by a new one, but he never suspended the constitution.
During the period prior to Mohamed Mahmoud undertaking his third government in early 1938, Egypt experienced a range of administrative interference in elections. The most serious was that which took place in the 1925 elections when Ismail Sidqi was the minister of the interior and put all the pressure possible to bring down the Wafd Party candidates, an attempt that ended in failure. Yet Mahmoud proved unique again after undertaking the above-mentioned government, for he used the administration to conduct frank forgery in order to bring down the Wafd Party nominees. This formed a precedent in the forgery of parliamentary elections in Egypt, something done by numerous governments since.
In short, Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha did what no one before him had done. And hence came the name he gave himself, that he had a "strong hand" seemingly incapable of giving in. This was in fact true some of the time, but not all of the time.
THE FIRST MISTAKE our friend fell into was dealing with the rule of King Farouq as though it were an extension of the rule of his father. He did not sufficiently comprehend the changes that had taken place on the political map.
Among these changes was the fact that the palace had grown freer from the control of the high commissioner's headquarters than before, when the high commissioner had interfered in all matters large and small and particularly in the relationship between the wearer of the crown and his government. And thus the Wafd Party's figuring that the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty would be in its favour was not correct. Britain's representative in Egypt no longer put his nose into domestic affairs except but a tad, allowing the young king the opportunity to dismiss the Wafdist government on 30 December 1937, a dismissal that countered all expectations.
There was also a change in the map of relations within Abdine Palace. Farouq was certainly not an extension of his father's rule, for Fouad was always careful to be the first and final lord of the palace. When he used one of his men, it was usually not one with a political character in the palace. He used the royal minister, Zaki Pasha El-Ibrashi, or Hassan Pasha Nashat, secretary of the royal court who was promoted to the post of deputy of the Royal Cabinet, which was not a political post by any means.
It was the opposite case during the rule of Farouq when Ali Maher undertook leadership of the Royal Cabinet. He was a politician from the top of his head to the tip of his toe. It is sufficient that he was the prime minister during the final years of King Fouad, and that he transferred rule to the Wafd Party following the re-institution of the 1923 constitution. When Ahmed Hassanein Pasha undertook the same post, he was in turn a first-class politician. He had begun work in the diplomatic corps and grown close to the palace after Fouad chose him as a teacher to the crown prince.
This led to Mohamed Mahmoud's dealing with Abdine Palace being more complicated than it had been during the government of the strong hand. Yet Mahmoud did not understand this well enough when he formed his second government in 1938, after heavy waters had swept beneath the bridges.
Moreover, the partisan map was not what it had been in 1928-1929. The Wafd Party was at its strongest following its success in signing the 1936 Anglo- Egyptian Treaty which was referred to as a treaty of honour and independence after it had done away with the foreign capitulations in the famed Montreaux Convention. Then there were the armed militias of their various colours -- the green shirts established by the men of Misr Al-Fita and the blue shirts of the Wafd Party. There was also another large party competing with the Liberal Constitutionalists for its place, the Saadist Union Party formed by those who split from the Wafd Party and which included Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi Pasha. In other words, Mahmoud was not playing alone on the field this time.
It can be said that while the man with a strong hand had stood as a clear rival to the palace in his previous experiences, he could not undertake the same role this time. In fact, Farouq's men, led by Ali Maher, succeeded in using Mahmoud twice. The first was when they drove him to commit the mistake of openly forging the elections held in early 1938. It is ironic that when Mahmoud realised that the Wafd Party had suffered a significant defeat following the results of Upper Egypt's elections to the point that Makram Ebeid had lost the district he had always won with the minimum of effort, and that the Liberal Constitutionalists had gained a major victory, the prime minister thought that he was to thank for that. He wanted to repeat this game in Lower Egypt, but the Royal Cabinet, led by Ali Maher, did not permit this. The results were not as he had wished for, with the Saadist Union Party winning the most votes and Mustafa El-Nahhas losing his district in Samanud. This proved that the palace had the upper hand.
The second time was when the palace intervened in the formation of the government and Mahmoud was not the only strong figure in it as he had been in the previous government. It included prominent personalities that were inimical to the Wafd Party, including three former prime ministers -- Mohamed Mahmoud himself, Ismail Sidqi and Abdel-Fattah Yehya. It also included three heads of parties, for in addition to the head of the Liberal Constitutionalists, there was the head of the Shaab Party loyal to the palace and Hafez Ramadan, the head of the old Watani Party. Some of the newspapers even described it as a government of "prominent personalities".
What had taken place in the political map did not mesh with the personality of Mohamed Mahmoud with its unilateral nature. This was particularly true after Ali Maher used the Saadist Union Party's majority in the Council of Representatives, which was approximately equal to that of the Liberal Constitutionalists, in order to execute policies desired by the palace and to prevent what the prime minister wished for from taking place. In the end, this resulted in his government lasting less than four months. He was forced to submit its resignation and form his next government following a ministerial crisis that lasted for three weeks due to a difference over the distribution of ministerial posts between Mahmoud's men and those of the palace, or, more precisely, Ali Maher's men.
One again, this government lasted less than two months when its resignation was submitted on 24 June of the same year. The man with the strong hand had grown weak and found no escape from reforming his government, this time bringing in the Saadists. This led to the formation of his fourth government, the one that saw the end of the strong hand legend.
THIS END began with the first moments in which the man commenced consultations for the formation of his government, a process that did not at all end as he had wished. He had no choice other than to let go of representatives of small parties such as the Union Party and the Shaab Party who were able to fulfill his wishes. He also had to oust Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, one of the major leaders of the Liberal Constitutionalists, to make way for a Saadist minister.
What was worse was that these latter insisted on a strong presence in the government. It was agreed that each of the two coalition parties would be represented by five ministerial posts, and that the two ministries the Saadists would gain would be the most important following the post of president. The Ministry of Finance would be undertaken by Ahmed Maher and the Ministry of the Interior would be undertaken by Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi. If we add to that the popularity enjoyed by these two men, both while they were in the ranks of the Wafd Party and after they left it, we can appreciate the extent of Mohamed Mahmoud's loss, after which he could no longer claim being strong.
We can also add to that the enemy laying in wait for the government in the leadership of the Royal Cabinet, Ali Maher Pasha, who had ambitions to get rid of Mahmoud Pasha and take his place. He never tired of planning conspiracies against the government as long as he was able to. The matter reached the point of his meeting with Mustafa El-Nahhas in his home in Ramel, Alexandria. While this meeting did not produce an agreement, the head of the Royal Cabinet sought to either frighten or incite Mahmoud, as confidential British documents state. This worried him a great deal.
In the secret battle waged between the two men revealed by the same documents, Mahmoud was inflicted with hardship by the head of the Royal Cabinet, naturally with the knowledge of King Farouq. Among the troubles caused was that which took place during the days of the formation of the third government, when Ali Maher was determined to bring in Mohamed Kamel El-Bendari Bey, the minister of health, in the resigned government. Mahmoud insisted on distancing him, which made it known that the man transmitted to the palace everything that took place in the cabinet meetings. Ali Maher was not able to counter this insistence other than by appointing the rejected minister as undersecretary to the Royal Cabinet. This surely did not please Mahmoud, especially as Ali Maher soon found an alternative for transmitting the government's news to him. This time it was Ahmed Khesheba Pasha, the minister of justice, who threw obstacles in the way of the smooth running of the government's work.
The worst and last of the battles, after which Mahmoud could not long bear continuing, was the parliamentary battle that took place between the councils of the senate and the representatives during August 1939. This battle was over the budget, for the financial committee of the senate council opposed annexing a tax on bequests to it.
This was a new battle by all standards. It was new regarding the dispute between the two councils over the budget, as it was assumed that after it had been prepared by the government and passed by the Council of Representative's financial committee, its approval by the senate council was a given. Yet this did not happen this time due to the considerable percentage of Wafdists in the "big council" that had not been touched by forgery since its membership lasted 10 years rather that the five of the "small council". It was also new because it was clear that Ali Maher's hand was not far removed from the intimation to some senators to take an inimical stance towards the government. All of this took place while the man previously known for his toughness was not able to effectively participate in the battle due to his health. He did not even attend the cabinet sessions presided over by Abdel-Fattah Yehya Pasha, or the sessions of the two council's financial committees who turned the issue into a raging battle. It seemed as though matters were slipping out of his hands.
It was under these circumstances that rumours spread that Mahmoud was on his way toward submitting his government's resignation, this time out of obligation rather than by choice as had happened in 1929 when he had done so to make way for a freely elected government. This government would continue the negotiations that had begun with Mr Henderson, the British foreign secretary, and which had met with significant success.
With all of these developments, it was not out of the ordinary for readers of Al-Ahram 's Sunday 13 August issue to find the following bold print headline on its first page -- "His Majesty the King accepts the government's resignation -- Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha meets with the King -- his discussion with Al-Ahram following the meeting -- the nominee to form a new government".
Our paper narrated the details of what took place that day, and mentioned that Mohamed Mahmoud had gone to the government headquarters in Bolkili, where the last of the cabinet's meetings was held. The issue of the resignation was discussed and Mohamed Mahmoud simplified his perspective on the situation. They unanimously agreed that continuing to work would wear out his health. Then the discussion turned to the formulation of the resignation letter, which they settled on in the form published at the beginning of this issue of the Diwan.
After the session closed, Al-Ahram 's reporter in Alexandria rushed up to Mohamed Mahmoud, who responded to his question by saying that he still insisted on resigning. As always occurs on occasions such as this, all the ministers went to their ministries to collect their private papers and then left after bidding farewell to their office employees.
At 5.30pm, Mahmoud Pasha went to Al-Muntazah Palace "where he was greeted by Said Zulfiqar Pasha, the master of ceremonies." He then had the honour of meeting with the king, a meeting that lasted from 6.30 to 7.00pm in keeping with custom despite the feelings of hatred between the two men. The departing prime minister then paid a visit of protocol to the head of the Royal Cabinet. Also in keeping with custom, Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha called upon the general-secretary of the cabinet and requested that he write a letter to each and every minister, thanking him for his cooperation and support in undertaking the government's burdens during the time that he had assumed governance.
The Wafdist newspapers bid Mahmoud farewell with malicious joy, as is always rained down upon those who fall from their posts. Al-Wafd Al-Masri wrote under the headline "Fate has struck and cast the dye and the ministry of Mohamed Mahmoud is a thing of the past", that until the day before, the government's rented papers had said that nothing was going on and that the government had never been stronger or more fixed on staying put than it was at that time. Meanwhile, the paper wrote, Alexandria's horizons were filled with news about the end of the "upright rule" and the resignation of the prime minister, and those other papers had lied until the last moment as the government was in fact in its final death throes.
Al-Masri accused those it called "of the government" of wanting to cover up the catastrophe expected to befall their government and said that it would not resign except for the reason of Mahmoud Pasha deciding once and for all that care of his health must come first.
We agree with the opinion of this paper, which was the most loyal to the Wafd Party. The situation was indeed sad when the legend of the "strong hand" ended in a manner that no one had expected.