Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 March 2002
Issue No.578
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map


A Diwan of contemporary life (434)

Dr YunanWhen, by royal decree, the government of Mustafa El-Nahhas was dismissed in 1928, the move was the first of many cabinet dissolutions ordered by the king who frequently took advantage of such power bestowed upon him by the 1923 Constitution. It was quite daring then for Al-Ahram to publish a letter that year maintaining that this royal prerogative should not be absolute. The paper later expressed its dismay by the precedent set by the palace in dismissing El-Nahhas's government -- supported as it was by a parliamentary majority. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* examines a period in which kings reigned supreme

The first cabinet dismissal

In just two terse lines, a royal decree on 25 June 1928 dismissed the first government headed by Mustafa El-Nahhas. The reason cited for this move was the rift in the ruling coalition between the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalist parties. Before proceeding to relate this constitutional drama, directed by the occupant of the throne, it is important to consider the historical backdrop.

The period between 1923 and 1952 was unique because of the frequent dismissals of governments, a phenomenon which resulted from the broad powers bestowed upon the king under the 1923 Constitution. Article 38 of this constitution states, "The king has the right to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies (parliament)," and Article 49 states, "The king has the right to appoint and dismiss ministers." These two provisions, worded succinctly -- perhaps done so deliberately -- wreaked havoc on constitutional life in the pre-revolutionary period. In less than 30 years, the king -- either Fouad or Farouq -- took advantage of this right so frequently that only one of the elected parliaments of that period was able to complete its full five- year term. This was the parliament of 1945-50, made up of a mix of minority parties supported by the palace.

The 1923 Constitution generated intense political rivalries, especially between the palace and the cabinet, because of the system that entitled the majority party to ministerial seats. In the 1923-52 period, four Wafd cabinets were dismissed, all headed by party leader El-Nahhas Pasha. The only other comparable instance before this period was the dismissal of the Mustafa Fahmi government in 1893. However, here the dismissal was the product of a clash between the palace and the British high commissioner, which is to say between domestic and foreign forces -- when there were no parliamentary elections -- with the difference that cabinets at the time were created and dissolved by royal decree.

It could be said that a form of Catholic marriage wedded the populist Wafd Party to Articles 38 and 49. As early as 1923, British High Commissioner Lord Allenby warned of the imbalance in Egyptian political life created by the existence of a majority party against which the smaller parties could never stand a chance without the support of the palace. The unhealthy antagonism between the Wafd and the palace contributed to several situations in which the king had recourse to these articles since the Wafd was never to be defeated through the ballot box -- that is, until the king developed the means to falsify the will of the electorate beginning in 1938.

It was quite daring of Al-Ahram in 1928 to publish a letter to the editor on the king's right to dismiss cabinets. The writer, who signed the letter with only his initials, maintained that this royal prerogative was not and should not be absolute: "Even when monarchs and heads of state are sacrosanct by virtue of constitutions and ethical conventions, they should exercise marked caution in using the threat to dismiss cabinets and use this prerogative only as a last resort. The wisdom behind this can best be summed up in the fact that the act of dismissal, per se, could entail a dispute that would inevitably embroil the rulers in debate with individuals and political parties."

The writer went on to note the conditions governing a monarch's decision to dismiss a government in constitutional countries. In Britain, for example, the monarch would only use this prerogative when a government no longer had the confidence of parliament but refused to tender its resignation. In France, the constitution stipulates that the president has the right to dismiss governments but recourse to that right remained largely theoretical and was only resorted to on one occasion, when Louis XVIII dismissed the government of Chateaubriand.

King Fouad
Mohamed Mahmoud
Ahmed Khashaba
Mustafa El-Nahhas
Commenting on the letter, Al-Ahram observed that since the inception of the cabinet system in Egypt in 1878, "there is nothing in the history of the 36 governments to indicate the occurrence of a single instance of dismissal." That was before, of course, King Fouad's decree of 25 June 1928, to which we return now.

At the beginning of that month, observers sensed trouble brewing between the king and the Wafdist cabinet. The palace was wary of El-Nahhas's attempt to extend Wafdist influence in rural government administration. It was particularly opposed to the Wafdist-sponsored draft law calling for the popular election of village mayors -- legislation which, if implemented, would ensure that the overwhelming majority of village mayors would come from the Wafd. In addition, to the consternation of the palace, a number of provincial directorate heads were appointed by the El-Nahhas government through which the Wafd gained a major avenue of influence in the countryside.

Symptomatic of the impending crisis were the attacks against the Wafd in La Liberté, a pro-palace French-language newspaper, and Al-Ittihad, the mouthpiece of the royalist political party by the same name. These papers charged that the El-Nahhas government had allowed political affiliations to prevail over equality and justice, that the Wafd's determination to undermine the opposition both in and outside of parliament contravened the spirit of the constitution and that these policies had prompted British intervention on more than one occasion to the detriment of the government and the people.

La Liberté further claimed that the intervention of Wafdist parliamentarians hampered the performance of government employees and that Wafdist rabble-rousing had created chaos in the country's schools and universities by encouraging students to abandon their studies and involve themselves in politics. It went on to allege that certain Wafd Party officials in government had engaged in the illegal sale of irrigation water.

Al-Ittihad sought to rally the minority parties -- the Liberal Constitutionalists and the National Party -- against the Wafd. It declared that "Emperor El-Nahhas" was mercilessly exploiting these parties, adding that the patriotic reasons that had motivated them to join the government coalition were no longer valid.

The manoeuvrings of the palace began to bear fruit. On 10 June, Liberal Constitutionalist and National Party MPs, as virtually one bloc, declared their opposition to certain parliamentary by-laws that were under discussion in parliament that day. To Wafdists the vehemence of the opposition signalled the imminent end of the coalition, a premonition confirmed by an editorial in the Liberal Constitutionalist newspaper, Al- Siyasa, which wondered whether the coalition could survive. Although the Liberal Constitutionalists were still committed to the coalition, it wrote, the members of this party had begun to openly voice grave doubts about the future of their relationship with the Wafd.

This editorial appeared on 14 June and on the same day, Al- Ahram appealed to the members of the various parties to set aside their differences in the interests of saving the coalition. Two days later, however, it became clear that the issue went deeper than the question of harmony between the coalition members. It was then that Al-Ahram first warned of an impending government crisis, evidence of which was seen in the strong attacks against the Wafd in the opposition press. It went on to charge that the British were engineering the crisis, although such schemes were doomed to fail since no Egyptian would agree to work as an agent for the colonising power. Nevertheless, the article concluded that the government was under attack on all sides.

The sense of foreboding was certainly felt in Wafdist circles which complained that their party was under attack by the combined forces of the palace, the Liberal Constitutionalists and the National Party. Al-Balagh, the Wafd Party newspaper, also warned of an impending constitutional crisis and proclaimed that the Wafdist cabinet was "under siege by the enemies of the constitution and the enemies of independence." Like Al-Ahram, Al-Balagh alleged a British conspiracy on the grounds that those attacking the Wafd would never have dared to act in that manner without British support.

At the same time, Al-Balagh denied rumours then circulating that El-Nahhas was about to leave for Europe for his summer holiday. It also announced that the parliament's summer recess would be postponed because there were pending issues that still had to be resolved. The signal was clear: El- Nahhas had no intention of giving his adversaries the opportunity to run his government in the absence of the vociferous Wafdist majority parliament.

Simultaneously, another Wafdist newspaper, Wadi Al-Nil, said it believed that an alliance was in the making between the minority parties in parliament. While such an alliance would be too weak to offset the influence of the Wafd through the democratic process, the newspaper, nevertheless, feared that the alliance would make a bid to impose itself unconstitutionally.

Against this charged background, on 19 June, Deputy Chairman of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party Mohamed Mahmoud tendered his resignation from the government. Soon afterwards, another cabinet official from the same party, Gaafar Wali, also resigned. Wafd Party newspapers charged that a conspiracy was under way. Under the headline, "A plot exposed," Al-Balagh cited a report from "well- informed sources" stating that "higher circles" -- a reference to the king -- were dissatisfied with the constitutional system and were moving to abolish it. Not quite so alarmist, Al-Ahram commented that the Egyptian people did not believe that the existence of an opposition posed a threat. However, they do fear that certain individuals are prepared to sacrifice the welfare of the country in order to quench their thirst for vengeance.

There was a conspiratorial element to the Egyptian political drama that unfolded in the summer of 1928. This was corroborated by Al-Siyasa, which observed that not only Liberal Constitutionalist but Wafd ministers as well were ready to leave the government in protest against the domination of the triumvirate of El-Nahhas, Wissa Wassef and Makram Ebeid of the Wafd.

The wave of desertions began on 23 June when Al-Ahram announced that Minister of Justice Ahmed Khashaba had tendered his resignation. The newspaper was quick to smell something fishy. It related that Khashaba had been invited to the wedding of the daughter of Sinout Hanna Pasha in Alexandria and that although the minister had departed for that destination, guests at the wedding reported that he had never arrived. A rumour immediately circulated that Khashaba had resigned; it became fact as soon as the minister reappeared in Cairo. It was learned that Khashaba had spent the night on a train in order to cover up his intention until it became a fait accompli. Thus, upon his return to Cairo, when journalists asked him whether it was true that he resigned, his answer was a pat, "Yes, I resigned."

Al-Ahram was stunned by Khashaba's resignation, especially as it came at a time when "the Wafd is under attack by all other parties" and when "the resignation of a Wafdist minister would undoubtedly be used against the Wafd."

Khashaba's resignation created a "poisonous, electrified" climate, which received another shock when Minister of Public Works Ibrahim Fahmi resigned the following day. This triggered rumours of the resignation of Wafdist MPs, notably Ibrahim Rateb, who initially denied the rumours, describing them as nonsense, only to confirm the news several days later.

The most devastating part of the conspiracy against the Wafd was the case of the purloined documents that surfaced in late June that year. The documents in question consisted of a letter from the family of Prince Ahmed Seifeddin engaging the legal firm of El-Nahhas to sue to recover the prince's estate, and a letter written by one of El-Nahhas's partners. The documents, which had mysteriously found their way to the palace and then to the front page of several anti-Wafd newspapers just at the time of the snowballing ministerial crisis, evidenced abuse of power on the part of El-Nahhas. Although it soon was clarified that the Arabic translation of the Turkish originals had been highly inaccurate, the scandal triggered by the documents had its desired effect. On 26 June Al-Ahram blared the news of King Fouad's decree dissolving the El- Nahhas cabinet.

Although it was the general impression that the king's unprecedented act had drawn the curtain on the constitutional drama at that point, there remained two more scenes. The first revolved around fears over the fate of the Wafd-dominated parliament and whether it, too, would be dissolved. Under the headline, "Session 85: Two big demonstrations for the constitution," Al-Ahram recounted the reaction to the royal decree of 25 June. "Hardly had the clock struck 5.30pm that day when groups of workers, students, intellectuals and people from all walks of life converged on the street leading to the parliament building. Within moments the neighbourhood was filled with demonstrators who lined themselves on both sides of the street. Emotions were high as their parliamentary representatives appeared to loud cheers of support.

"Soon the prime minister arrived accompanied by his ministers. At this point a roar of approval came from the crowd that lasted for a lengthy period of time. They cheered the glorious leader and the constitution, and with every cheer the crowds broke out into applause."

A similar scene occurred inside the parliament building where cheers greeted the ministers as they entered. They took their seats along with the rest of the parliamentarians, rather than in their assigned chairs, as El-Nahhas made his way to the podium to announce the royal decree of dismissal. Strictly in keeping with protocol, El-Nahhas expressed his gratitude and that of his colleagues to the king for the royal dismissal decree which had thanked the government.

El-Nahhas's speech was greeted with sustained and deafening applause. Al-Ahram reports that MP Hassan Yassin rose and proclaimed, "Long live His Excellency El-Nahhas! Long live the chairman of the Wafd! Long live the leader of the nation! Long live the Constitution!" The rest of the parliament members shouted along with Yassin," the newspaper wrote. The Senate, too, witnessed a similar spectacle, if less clamorous than that in the lower house, whether because of their fewer numbers or because El-Nahhas did not put in an appearance, for he had left parliament for the Saad Zaghlul Club. In all events, Al-Ahram reported that Senate member Naguib El- Gharabli read out the king's decree and the ex-prime minister's thank-you address to parliament.

Al-Ahram was dismayed at the precedent set by the palace in dismissing a government supported by a majority in the parliament. Though it did not express its condemnation of the king's action directly, it did remark that El-Nahhas's government was short-lived "because it was born in the midst of a tempest and buffeted by strong winds from every side." It continues, "If it should be faulted for anything it is the tenacity with which it clung to the causes of right, liberty and the constitution. For this is precisely what it did, and no criticism, however opprobrious, and no accusation, no matter how grave, can detract from this reality." It also wrote that the former Wafdist members of the cabinet "know that their place is in the Wafd and that every stone they build in the edifice of the nation is more valuable than their work in any other setting. The Wafd was born in the arena of the battle for the welfare of the nation and it shall remain in that arena. This is its native soil and source of nourishment from which it cannot depart without grave loss to the welfare of the nation."

Then Al-Ahram did something in line with its position. Instead of publishing the photos of the members of the new government, its front page published the photos of the 10 members of the former El-Nahhas cabinet, including the four ministers who had resigned. The pictures were a prelude to the closing scene of the drama, which was the publication of another collection of photographs. Featured in Al-Ahram of 28 June, the photographs this time were of the members of the new, post-El-Nahhas cabinet, and staring out unabashedly from their midst were the ministers who had resigned under El-Nahhas. The palace had clearly paid them off well: Mohamed Mahmoud was now prime minister and minister of interior; Gaafar Wali was minister of war and temporary minister of Waqf foundations; and Ahmed Khashaba was minister of education. Alongside the picture of the latter, Al-Ahram added a reminder that Khashaba had served in several previous coalition governments: minister of war under Adli, of transportation under Tharwat and justice under El-Nahhas. It was as though the caption was suggesting that Khashaba had become so addicted to ministerial seats that it mattered little what portfolio he had so long as he could remain in power. As for Ibrahim Fahmi, he remained minister of public works. In the brief caption under his picture Al-Ahram told readers that Fahmi was first and foremost a public servant and had little interest in politics, an analysis that was difficult to believe in light of the motives which led him to resign from the El- Nahhas cabinet.

The newspaper took the occasion of the new government to caution against further dismissals because of the risk this would pose to constitutional life. The people were whole- heartedly committed to the system of parliamentary representation and "desire no alternative form of government," it wrote. Undoubtedly, what prompted this caution were rumours to the effect that the newly-installed cabinet -- at the behest of the king, of course -- intended to dissolve parliament. "New elections may come, or they may be postponed. Everything is possible and everything is dependent upon conditions and further developments," Al-Ahram commented, adding, "It is impossible in such circumstances for one to say that such and such must happen. However, the dissolution of parliament and the holding or deferment of new elections will not alter strong patriotic feelings and will only encourage closer attachment of the people to their constitution and to more determined support of their Wafd Party."

That the British press had welcomed Fouad's dismissal of the El-Nahhas cabinet was, to Al-Ahram, incontrovertible proof that this action had taken place in collusion with the British high commissioner. So as to drive this view home, Al- Ahram published some of the commentaries which appeared in the British press. From the Daily News: "Egypt is plagued by the folly and recklessness of its politicians who seek to further their personal interests." The Scotsman: "There is no one in Egypt at present who has the charisma to be a dictator. But King Fouad can gather around him some ministers to rule the country honestly and impartially." The Central News wrote that reports had circulated of the formation of a new party representing a coalition of the Liberal Constitutionalists, the National Party and the Ittihad "the purpose of which is to demonstrate that the Wafd cannot claim to be the only party to advocate the cause of Egypt's independence." Finally, the Daily Chronicle declared that the accusations levelled against El- Nahhas and Wissa Wassef demonstrated that "Egypt is incapable of assuming the burdens of government without the guidance of a modern nation."

The new cabinet had a month's break in order to determine what action to take with regard to parliament. Parliament during that month had been suspended while Mohamed Mahmoud moved feverishly to garner popular support. Towards this end he approached a number of Wafd members with invitations to take part in his government. Confidential British documents later revealed that Mahmoud was seeking the support of a significant number of Wafdist politicians in the hopes of ousting El-Nahhas as the party chairman and stepping into his place. In any event, the plan failed when the Wafd members turned down Mahmoud's invitation.

The new prime minister also made another gesture of goodwill. Parliament could resume as planned on 28 July so long as the cabinet could attend without presenting a platform or raising the question of confidence. This would enable the parliament to complete its review of the budget and go into the summer recess as would normally have been the case. The Wafdist MPs rejected the offer on the grounds that it was hardly reasonable to expect the government to sit in on parliament and remain silent or to expect parliamentary members to refrain from asking it questions. Parliament and the new cabinet had reached a stalemate but not for long. On 21 July, before the period granted to Mahmoud to reach an accommodation with the Wafd had elapsed, King Fouad issued a decree dissolving parliament. Now the curtain closed on the palace-orchestrated constitutional drama.

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

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