Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (346)

The outbreak of World War I and the 1919 Egyptian Revolution effectively suspended parliamentary life in the country. When the doors reopened in 1924, government officials were forced to adapt to more subdued surroundings than they had been accustomed to. Formal evening attire was mandatory. There would now be seating arrangements in parliament. No longer would speakers be interrupted haphazardly. In this more dignified setting, there would be no heckling, no jeering, no whistling. Name-calling was frowned upon, speaking while standing had become a must and speaking out of turn was no longer in vogue. Replies and rebuttals would be governed by strict rules of procedure. Punitive measures were introduced for anyone not abiding by this new code of conduct. From the pages of Al-Ahram, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* writes about the new protocol of politics


Politically correct

Mohamed Sabri Abu Allam
Mohamed Sabri Abu Alam
At 9.30am on Saturday 15 March 1924, members of the new, constitutionally elected Egyptian Chamber of Deputies and the Senate began to assemble in the Parliament building. Al-Ahram's correspondent was on hand to cover the historic occasion:

"Guests took their seats in the designated galleries. They included prominent foreign officials such as ambassadors of emissary states; senior government officials such as deputy ministers, governors, provincial directors, the advisor to the Ministry of Justice and his wife and the general-commander of the Egyptian army; and senior religious officials such as their eminencies the rector of Al-Azhar, the mufti of Egypt, the chief magistrate of the Supreme Religious Court and other spiritual leaders."

Preparations for this day had begun the previous week. In order to ensure that the inaugural ceremonies were accorded all possible decorum and sobriety, formal attire was required of all present. Members of the two chambers of parliament were to wear formal evening attire. Military personnel were to appear in uniform with full military decorations. Egyptian and foreign government officials were to wear ceremonial uniforms displaying their ranks, while evening dress was required of all Egyptian and foreign officials without rank while foreign notables were required to wear coattails. Exceptions were those members of parliament and the senate who wear native costumes."

At 9.40am a cannon salute was sounded, heralding the commencement of the royal procession. King Fouad was seated in a six-horse carriage. To his left was Prime Minister Saad Zaghlul Pasha. Preceding the royal carriage was a four-horse carriage carrying the chief chamberlain and the chief master of ceremonies. At exactly 10.00am, the procession reached the parliament building where, as Al-Ahram reports, the ministers and princes came forward to kiss the king's hand then followed him into the assembly hall where all the deputies had risen. Al-Ahram continues, "After His Majesty hailed the assembly, the congregation rallied with 'Long live the King!' The king proceeded to the throne as the ministers took up positions to his right and the princes to his left. The session was chaired by the eldest Egyptian parliamentary deputy, El-Masri Pasha El-Saadi." The king then delivered the constitutional oath, or what Al-Ahram referred to as the "royal oath," after which Zaghlul delivered "the speech from the throne."

This solemn inauguration of the parliament in 1924 marked the resumption of parliamentary life in Egypt, the first time since the outbreak of World War I. Never before, since its inception in 1866, had the Egyptian parliament closed its doors for such an extraordinary length of time, this despite the turbulent events triggered by the Orabi rebellion and the British occupation.

But the last Legislative Assembly, as it was called, had not been dissolved. Rather, it was simply suspended due to the exigencies of war and, afterwards, the upheavals of the 1919 Revolution. It was thus in their continued capacity as parliamentary representatives that, on 13 November 1918, three nationalist leaders met with the British High Commissioner in Cairo, Sir Reginald Wingate, to present their demands for the recognition of Egyptian independence. That meeting ignited the first spark of the Egyptian revolution. It was also in their capacity as members of parliament that these leaders formed the delegation, or wafd, that would present Egyptian demands to the peace conference in Versailles. It was this wafd, led by Zaghlul, that acquired a mass following, constituted itself as a political party and was swept into power with an overwhelming 90 per cent majority in the 1924 parliamentary elections.

In spite of this evident victory for the nationalist cause, Al-Ahram reminisced fondly over the days of the old Legislative Assembly. One article observed that the conduct of parliament in the days of the old Legislative Assembly was more dignified and reverent. It relates, "The visitor to the Legislative Assembly was never assaulted by that ubiquitous din of voices and commotion that one sees today in the Deputies Council. The bell wasn't constantly ringing to call for order, there didn't exist the perpetual complaints that some members were given the floor and others not, and there were never the suspicions that a member who submitted a motion was deprived of the opportunity to rally support."

One could assess Al-Ahram's comparison from another viewpoint. The 1924 parliament came into existence following the recognition of Egyptian independence and the nation's first constitution, victories achieved by the mass movement spearheaded by the party that was now in power. It could well be that the din and commotion frowned upon by the newspaper was, in fact, a manifestation of vitality rather than chaos. During the two weeks preceding the inauguration of the new parliament, Al-Ahram covered a host of issues that would effect the conduct of the new parliament. If these issues suggest anything at all it is that chaos was to be the last trait to characterise its sessions.

On 5 March, Al-Ahram featured a full page on the "bylaws of the parliamentary councils," covering everything from working hours to penalties for violating the code of conduct. It discussed, for example, an issue that few would have thought of -- how the members were to be seated. Parliaments around the world had different provisions for seating arrangements, the article explained. Some adopted a system of lots whereby members would draw on the first day of each session, while others arranged seating alphabetically. Still others assigned seats based on the number of votes the MPs had won in the elections. The newspaper continues, "Some parliaments leave it up to the deputies themselves to choose their seats in accordance with their political orientations and views, while reserving certain seats for the government and the heads of the opposition parties." In Al-Ahram's opinion it was wiser to let the MPs themselves choose their seats. "In any event, depending on the circumstances, they will change places anyway according to political alliances and separate themselves from their political adversaries until the time comes that such bodies organise themselves more systematically."

A second issue the article raised was the need to create permanent parliamentary committees. With so many members present in a full assembly, the newspaper argues, "it is impossible to deliberate on all the issues thoroughly and calmly." Committees were thus an important expedient that saved time and energy. Many parliaments in the world had up to 20 specialised committees and some had almost twice that number. The Egyptian parliament had 13, the most important of which were the domestic and foreign policy committees, the Sudan committee and the committees for agriculture, public works, transport and, finally, religious endowment foundations.

King Fouad
On 15 March 1924, King Fouad presided over the inaugural session of parliament which marked the resumption of parliamentary life in Egypt following the outbreak of World War I
One vital principle that affected the parliament's powers revolved around whether the MPs had the right to query or interpellate the government. As the Egyptian constitution was modelled to a considerable extent on its Belgian counterpart, Al-Ahram referred to the latter for clarification. The Belgian constitution, it said, drew a distinction between querying and interpellation. The former, it said, was restricted to the need to obtain certain information, while the latter represented a form of investigation into the executive authorities' performance of their duties. Both querying and interpellating were governed by certain rules of conduct. Queries could not "contain profanities, express sarcasm or refer to personal details apart from those pertaining to the officials' public functions and duties." An interpellation, on the other hand, had to be submitted in writing by the speaker of the house, stating succinctly the subject. "The interpellant may not speak for more than half an hour for the purposes of clarification and explication."

Naturally, Al-Ahram addressed the fundamental process of balloting. Here, it stated its preference for the French system, in accordance with which votes are first taken by a show of hands and, should the result not be clear, by having the MPs rise or remain seated. Should there still remain doubt, "ballots would be cast on blank pieces of paper and placed in a box."

The principle of "open parliament" was established in 1909 when permission was given to newspaper representatives to attend the sessions of the Legislative Assembly, and there was no reason to expect a reversal of this principle which had become established parliamentary practice in other countries. This given, therefore, the Al-Ahram article advocated special seating designated for the public, but, it adds, public access to parliamentary deliberations should be subject to some form of control. Turning again to European models, it writes, "In France and Belgium they reconcile between the requirement of open parliament and the limited availability of seats through a system of passes, thereby ensuring that order is maintained during the sessions. The public is also prohibited from entering the area designated for the parliamentary representatives, the exception being made for those charged with specific public service tasks such as clerks and ushers."

Finally, the article also devoted considerable space to a code of conduct essential to the smooth conduct of parliamentary business. In all parliamentary systems, it observed, "a member of parliament may not speak unless he requests permission and is so granted. Once granted permission, he must speak while standing, whether while remaining in his place or at the podium. The speaker, moreover, must not deviate from the subject at hand. Should he do so he will be cautioned by the parliament speaker, and should he persist in so doing the parliament speaker may request parliament to prevent him from continuing." In addition, MPs who violate the rules could be subjected to various penalties. These ranged from a verbal warning to a caution plus a note on record, a censure, and, finally as a last resort, a censure plus a temporary ban from attending parliamentary sessions. An MP could be banned from participating in the parliamentary committees or entering the parliament building. A deduction from his remuneration was one other punitive measure.

This lengthy Al-Ahram article inspired others to write to the newspaper on the same subject. The most important contributor was Mohamed Sabri Abu Alam, who would eventually become secretary of the Wafd in 1943 and, at other stages of his career the minister of justice and head of the Lawyers Syndicate. In 1924, however, Abu Alam was an ordinary parliamentary representative from Menufiya, with no additional honorific titles affixed to his name.

Abu Alam's "Parliamentary Traditions and Ethics" appeared in Al-Ahram in two installments, the first on 14 March and the second on 22 March. In effect, the articles were an extensive study of the history of many of the customs and formalities that were adopted by the Egyptian parliament of 1924, and thus merits a closer look.

The first item the author discusses in the parliamentary chronology is the "speech from the throne." In the early days of the parliamentary system in England, he writes, the monarch attended the sessions of parliament. This custom ended following the death of Queen Anne, after which British monarchs only attended the opening and closing sessions. Originally, it was the monarch who delivered the "speech from the throne," which, in effect, was a policy statement on foreign relations, legislative reform and the state of the economy. The Houses of Lords and Commons would then formulate a response to the monarch's speech, after which the members of both houses would go to the palace and assemble in a room adjacent to the throne room. "Then, when the doors opened, the speaker of the House of Lords, with the speaker of the House of Commons to his left, would enter the royal chamber, read out the reply and respectfully present the scroll to the king."

Abu Alam then turns to the constitutional oath recited by members of parliament when they are sworn into office. This tradition, too, was established in Britain where it was originally called the "pledge of allegiance" in accordance with which the member of parliament would take the oath of loyalty and fealty in the service of "his majesty the king, his legitimate heirs and his successors." The author adds that the members of parliament were required to recite the pledge as soon as the king approved the selection of the speaker of the house and that the members were not entitled to their remuneration until they took the oath.

The method of selecting the speaker of the House also had a history that Abu Alam traced to the development of the parliamentary system in Britain. There, the monarch originally selected the speaker. However, following the dispute between Charles II and parliament in 1679, this task fell to the chambers of parliament. In Britain, the writer notes, "the tradition was established to the effect that the speaker disassociates himself from his political party affiliations throughout his tenure as speaker and that he wield his extensive powers in an entirely non-partisan, impartial manner." He also observes that, although the speaker was usually elected from the majority party, his tenure would continue even if power in parliament shifted to another party and that he would normally remain in office throughout the duration of the parliamentary term.

Speeches in parliament seem to have evolved a special code of ethics. Again in the British House of Commons, "you see men of dignified and solemn bearing, in frock coat and hat, speaking in the most natural, uncontrived and earnest manner. This is why they have scorned the recitation of speeches written in advance, although they might rely on an outline for reference. The reason for this, they say, is that pre-written speeches, no matter how carefully constructed, may not necessarily suit the proceedings of the session as they develop. Also, if the speeches are long, they tend to cast a glacial pall that soon empties the seats in the chamber, which demeans the dignity of the house."

Tradition also has it that a member cannot speak on the same subject twice, unless it was in order to clarify points in his address that had been misunderstood or misinterpreted. The speaker would also have an immediate chance at rebuttal against any criticism of his speech or of his person. In addition, members were forbidden from lacing their speeches with insinuations of treason or rebellion and from directing abusive or offensive comments at fellow members. "And should a member direct an offensive remark at the speaker, the speaker may order the comment struck from the record after having taken the opinion of the House."

Simultaneously, the ethics of parliament ordained that while members of the house are speaking, other members must "remain in their places; refrain from reading newspapers, magazines, letters, books or other such publications for the purposes of diversion; maintain silence and refrain from whistling or interrupting the speaker in any way; and compose themselves at all times."

Abu Alam concludes his study with a reminder to the parliamentary representatives of their rights and privileges. A deputy's membership in parliament only ceases with his death, his failure to get re-elected or the dissolution of the parliament. Deputies also enjoy immunity from arrest during a parliamentary term, as well as for a period of 40 days before and after that term. The deputy from Menufiya explains that "the purpose of this right, which is to ensure the freedom of parliamentary members to perform their representational duties, dates back to the earliest days of the parliamentary system and extends beyond his person to his chattels, property and money."

Of course, realities on the ground can differ radically from theory, which was the case with the Egyptian parliament of 1924. Hardly did the new parliament get down to business than Egyptian public opinion was dealt two stunning blows. The first was that the representatives of two newspapers were banned from attending the sessions: Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, and Al-Watan, considered a forum for the Coptic community. Zaghlul sought to justify this arbitrary action on the grounds that the newspapers were hostile to the Wafd and that this hostility had no basis in objective facts.

Naturally, the response of both newspapers was to intensify their campaign against the Wafd Party. Al-Siyasa, for example, charged that Zaghlul had acted as though the inaugural ceremony for the new parliament was a private function for the Wafd. Naturally, too, the British press seized upon the action as proof that the Wafd was incapable of treating the opposition fairly. The Morning Post correspondent in Cairo reported that a delegation of Egyptian journalists found themselves forced to call upon Zaghlul in order to present a strongly worded letter of protest against the exclusion of the newspapers from the parliament.

The second shock was the realisation of exactly how feeble the opposition was. The Wafd had swept into power with 192 out of the 214 available seats in parliament, leaving 11 seats to the Liberal Constitutional Party, four to the National Party and seven to independents. Although the opposition was already weak, soon after parliament convened, two deputies representing the Liberal Constitutionalists went over to the Wafd Party. But the greater shock was that Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha, the vice chairman of the Liberal Constitutionalists, ceded his chair to a Wafd delegate. As a result, the Wafd now controlled 195 seats. While the 1924 parliament was the first parliament in Egyptian history to recognise an opposition, with only 12 seats this recognition had little substance.

To Al-Ahram this state of affairs was deplorable and on 19 March its editorial was devoted to the importance of an effective opposition. It wrote, "The natural order that renders constitutional life feasible is for government to be the product of two permanently opposing forces. The virtue of the democratic system is that it renders constitutional life a noble war. One thing the people of Egypt should know is that the tyranny of the majority is more pernicious than the tyranny of an individual."

The editorial goes on to warn how dangerous the tyranny of the majority was to the national cause. The writer's fear was not that "the Egyptian constitutional government become a single person with 300 different names." However, it was anxious to prevent dissension and acrimonious partisanship at a time when "the government, the legislature and the people are united by a single demand." Not only was a loyal opposition essential for the preservation of unity of spirit and purpose; it would strengthen Zaghlul's hand as he prepared to enter negotiations with the British.

In the midst of the dismay over the feeble power of the opposition, The Morning Post, a British newspaper that focused on Egyptian affairs, emerged with a new perspective on the opposition in the Egyptian parliament. This opposition, it suggested, existed within the Wafd itself.

While covering the proceedings in the new Egyptian parliament in Cairo, the Post correspondent observed "minor tensions" between Wafdists whom he described as being "of the centre" and others whom he categorised as "from the left." The tension, he said, arose over "the increasing belief that the speech from the throne should not have merely promised that the government would work to fulfill national aspirations, but should have gone further to state explicitly the demand for full and unqualified independence for Egypt and Sudan. It is now apparent that this agitation emanated from the left-wing of the multitudinous Zaghlulist party. It has also become clear that those of the centre in that party are prepared to support the speech from the throne precisely as it was recited in parliament."

The Morning Post's categorisations were somewhat premature. Such clear-cut divisions in the Wafd did not surface until the mid-1940s, with the rise of the younger "Wafdist vanguard" at which time the Wafd had become more or less the party of the establishment. One suspects, therefore, that the British newspaper had another agenda when it extrapolated such divisions within the Wafd at its initial stage in power.

To Al-Ahram, whatever tension existed within the Wafd was not as serious as the threat its massive majority posed to establishing and promoting the principles of a plural party system. The newspaper, therefore, concluded its discussion on the subject with an appeal to the Liberal Constitutional Party and the National Party to stand together "as one" in order to compensate for the "great infirmity" that beset them. Such hopes, unfortunately, were not to be fulfilled.


Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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