Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2012
Issue No. 1116
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Democracy then and now

Parliamentary life in Egypt began nearly 150 years ago, and while much has changed since then familiar tensions remain, writes Samir Sobhi

Click to view caption
King Fouad with prime minister Mohamed Mahmoud in his royal carriage; Khedive Ismail; King Farouk in 1924 parliament; Saad Al-Katatni overjoyed as he salutes members of the now dissolved parliament; Ahmed Zeiwar Pasha

Egypt is no stranger to parliamentary life, or to the dissolution of parliaments either.

This week the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) upheld the decision of the Supreme Consitutional Court (SCC) to dissolve the People's Assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood who won the majority of seats in the parliament didn't receive the verdict of the SCC well and have been engaged in a legal battle since then.

Looking back into history, King Fouad dissolved parliament on 24 December 1924 and then had his government amend the electoral constituencies to stop the Wafd Party from winning the following parliamentary elections, for example.

When the elections were finally carried out on 12 March 1925, prime minister Ahmed Ziwar Pasha claimed that the government coalition had a majority and that he would stay on as head of a government led by the Constitutional Liberals, or Al-Ahrar Al-Dostouriyoun.

He was wrong, however. When the parliament actually convened on 23 March 1925, with Mohamed Tawfiq Nasim Pasha acting as speaker and with King Fouad attending, it was clear that most of the MPs were supporters of the Wafd. The new parliament then proceeded to elect Wafd leader Saad Zaghloul as speaker, which left Ziwar no option but to step down.

Zaghloul became parliamentary speaker at noon, and King Fouad dissolved the parliament at eight that evening. Eight hours were the shortest life span of any parliament in Egypt up to that time, if not a world record.

Egypt's first parliament was formed in 1866 on the initiative of the Khedive Ismail. His aim was not completely democratic, however, since Ismail hoped to shift the blame for his mangled finances from his own person to an elected body. He also hoped that once a representative, or semi-representative, government was in power, European bankers would lend him more money for his ambitious modernisation programme.

Historian Jacob Landau tells the story of Egypt's parliaments in a book that has recently been translated by Sami El-Leithi. According to Landau, the Wafd copied the programme of the National Party of Mustafa Kamel. However, thanks to its massive popular support and incredible vitality, the Wafd managed to dominate Egyptian political life for nearly 30 years.

On 10 November 1866, the Khedive Ismail ordered the creation of the Maglis Shura Al-Nuwwab (the Advisory Council of Representatives). Those wishing to run for the new parliament had to be at least 25 years of age, born in Egypt, to have lived most of their lives in the country, have no connection with the Armed Forces or civil engineering works, and no criminal record.

In the first session of the new council, Ismail boasted of the achievements of his father and grandfather and promised to continue to serve the country in the same manner. He then reminded the assembled parliamentarians that the Islamic Sharia makes it incumbent on rulers to listen to the people. No mention was made of the Ottoman sultan in the speech, although Egypt was nominally under Ottoman rule at the time.

In their first session, the parliamentarians discussed taxes, property, public works and education. They decided that taxes should be collected only in harvest time and without the use of excessive force. They urged the termination of the tax-farming system, which had opened the door to the abuse of the peasantry. The parliament also discussed imposing fees on production, commerce, and the registration of contracts.

Regarding property, the new MPs asked for state-owned land to be assessed for tax purposes. They then called for the abrogation of forced labour, and commissioned a report on the conditions of workers in the country.

They called for the creation of more schools in major towns, recommending that the new schools be situated close to the railways. They also called for education to be provided free of charge to all children under 14, irrespective of location or creed. The education minister was instructed to supervise the new curricula and the provision of meals for all pupils and clothes for the poorest ones.

Local administrative bodies were instructed to finance the building of schools, and part of the revenues from awqaf, or religious endowments, were earmarked for education. The public was also urged to donate money to the new education system.

The Europeans were pleased with the formation of the 1866 council, as Ismail had hoped, considering it to be a step in the right direction. Some even claimed that Egypt was as democratic as the best European nations. In fact, however, the new parliament had at best an advisory role, and it was often overruled by the khedive.

Egypt's early parliaments were also dominated by religious leaders. However, as time went by, a new generation of well-educated nationalists took the lead, and they were determined to make their voices heard. With the rise of the Wafd Party, parliament became a major player on the political scene. By the time that people like Zaghloul served as parliamentary speaker, both the palace and the occupying British authorities had to pay attention to the country's legislative body.

By the mid-1920s, the British may have come to realise that Egypt was not going to be under their control forever. Their only hope was therefore either to ensure that they had friendly voices in parliament, or to keep the political scene as divided as possible in order to benefit their interests. In a situation of political rivalry, policies would be stalled, and the British would be needed to referee the situation. Or so they hoped.

Today, the situation in Egypt has completely changed. A hundred years ago, we didn't have television or radio. We didn't have the Internet or fast travel. Yet, the same tensions existed between the old and the new, the local and the foreign, the left and the right. The same discrepancies existed, too, between the ideals of democracy and those who wanted to use it to serve their own goals.

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