Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2003
Issue No. 630
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (486)

Day of the no vote

Dr Yunan Under a new and controversial constitution, Egyptians were to have gone to the ballot box on 14 May 1931 for parliamentary elections. But across the country the polls were boycotted and deadly violence erupted in cities and towns. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* describes the situation of a people on strike


"The electorate consists of all Egyptian people, from rich to poor, from labourer to king, from merchant to civil servant. No-election day will be that day when all these people will declare their resolve not to participate even if their bodies are rent asunder or crucified on the trunks of palm trees" -- Tawfiq Diab
Thursday, 14 May 1931 -- election day -- was approaching. Egypt was about to have its first parliamentary elections under the new constitution promulgated on 22 October the previous year. Under the constitution, the Chamber of Deputies was reduced to 150 members and the Senate to 100 of which three-fifths were appointed. The cabinet was answerable to the lower chamber alone. Any questions as to the outcome of the polls were to be brought before a non-parliamentary body. Candidates who ran unopposed could not win by default, but rather had to present themselves in the polls and a quarter of the votes in their constituency.

In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, Al-Ahram cast a look back over the four elections held during the previous eight years and drew a number of conclusions. The four -- in 1923, 1925, 1926 and 1929 -- had all been held under the old, 1923 constitution whereas the forthcoming elections were to be held under the new constitution, "the promulgation of which stirred considerable journalistic and non-journalistic controversy". Regardless of whether the previous elections were held through indirect or direct ballot, "the electoral law, under which the current elections will be held, differs radically from that governing elections in the past."

There was another very noticeable difference between the past elections and the one coming up. The Wafd Party, which in the previous elections invariably won landslide majorities, was boycotting the forthcoming elections. It was joined in this by the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, the largest of the three minority parties, which had also boycotted the elections of 1929. At that time, the British press had questioned the validity of the parliament that would arise from the Liberal Constitutionalists' boycott. "It is inconsistent with principles of democratic practice for parliament to consist of a single party or single view, when two ordinary people find it difficult to always share the same opinion," one newspaper commented. Yet it seemed that this was precisely the kind of parliament that would emerge from the forthcoming elections. Furthermore, while the parties participating in the forthcoming elections were busy holding rallies and disseminating propaganda, the police and army were out in force to prevent the opposition from advocating their call to boycott. This heavy-handed approach drew Al-Ahram's ire: "In the previous elections, the opposition, whether it was boycotting or not or whether it was Wafdist, Ittihadist or Nationalist, was allowed its propaganda and rallies."

This was as far as Al-Ahram was willing to go in its criticism. It had sworn not to declare itself openly against the rule of then Prime Minister Sidqi whose wrath against the press knew no bounds. It is sufficient here to recall that an international leader of the stature of Mahatma Gandhi had condemned Sidqi's repression of the press, citing the case of the prominent journalist, Tawfiq Diab, as exemplary of the victims of the government's persecution of free speech. Diab's newspaper, Al-Diaa had been the 12th newspaper to have been closed down in a single year.

It is therefore interesting to turn to that newspaper to see what Al-Ahram dared not print. Diab headed a vehement attack against the forthcoming elections with the banner "No-Election Day!" It was his sense of certitude, not mere optimism, that inspired him to choose this headline. He explains: "The electorate consists of all Egyptian people, from rich to poor, from labourer to king, from merchant to civil servant. No-election day will be that day when all these people will declare their resolve not to participate even if their bodies are rent asunder or crucified on the trunks of palm trees."

The parties that were participating in the elections were the pro- palace Ittihad and Shaab parties and the Nationalist Party. While it was obvious why the first two parties would take part in the elections, the position of the Nationalist Party had people perplexed. Al-Ahram remarked, "Regardless of how weak this party is -- because of the weakness of those in charge, not because of any weakness in its principles, which are natural to all nations and peoples -- it still has a voice. We have heard this voice in our parliamentary life, we have heard it speak out on crucial affairs and we have heard it echo beyond the walls of parliament." In spite of the praise, the comment served little to explain the Nationalists' decision not to boycott.

Sensing the general puzzlement and dismay over this decision, several party members issued a statement to Al-Ahram which appeared on 12 May 1931. It read: "It is essential to monitor how the fate of the nation might be affected by virtue of any agreement or treaty that requires official approval from a parliament established on the basis of any constitution. For this reason, the party participated in all previous elections and for this reason too it must enter the current elections." One suspects that the signatories to this statement were parliamentary aspirants eager to begin campaigning on their party's ticket, for their statement also criticised their central committee's tardiness in publishing the party lists. Election day was only 48 hours away.

British Foreign Office archives tell another side of the story. They suggest that the Nationalist Party and the Palace had evolved a special relationship, most probably because of their shared animosity towards the Wafd. Nationalist Party leaders held a long- standing resentment against the Wafd for having supplanted their party as the embodiment of nationalist aspirations.

"No-election day" came and went. In spite of Al-Ahram's wariness of Sidqi's power and influence, it could not help to devote its edition of the day after to "Incidents on election day". It relates: "Yesterday was an unusual day. Stores were closed in most streets of the capital except for those selling food. Those stores that had remained opened received visits from certain individuals asking them to close their doors in the name of the nation and patriotism. Many incidents of violence erupted in the electoral constituencies."

There followed the reports filed by correspondents covering the balloting stations the previous day. In Al-Wayli, at 11.00am, students from Fouad I School took to the streets in a protest demonstration. "Some women appeared on the balcony of one of the houses in the neighbourhood, shouted slogans and exhorted passersby to take part in the demonstrations calling for a boycott of the polls in this constituency. They continued in this manner until orders were issued to raid the house, after which the women were brought out and taken to the police station." The reporter covering the demonstration added that many of these women were from prominent families, which was apparent from the title, bek, affixed to most of their husbands' names.

The arrest of the women triggered mayhem. A crowd attempted to storm the police station where the women were being held and had to be fought back by police. Ten more people were arrested. Later, at 8.00pm, "hooligans set fire to a tram, which burned to a charred hulk. Seven tramway workers were injured, among whom was the driver, Abdel-Aziz Halawa, who received severe wounds in the head and has been taken to hospital."

In Boulaq, railway depot workers, after collecting their salaries, went on strike. Al-Ahram reports that government authorities were both shocked and disconcerted by this action, especially since the workers numbered around 3,000. Events began when a group of workers shouted, "Strike! Strike!" The call was taken up by others in spite of their superiors' appeals for calm. "The clamour continued until security forces arrived in the area. However, when the commanding officers realised that entering the area would trigger a huge battle, they ordered all entrance points cordoned off. In view of the continuing uproar, the army was given orders to open fire, which resulted in several dead and wounded." Many of these were passersby, including some women, who were caught in the crossfire.

Given that railway workers were one of the backbones of the 1919 Revolution, it was perhaps not odd that the fighting in Boulaq would escalate to virtually a mini-revolution. According to Al- Ahram, the strikers were not exactly weaponless. In addition to stones, bricks and metal bars, they also used the large hoses in the depot to fire powerful jets of water at government forces, in response to which Sidqi ordered the water to the area shut down. They also obstructed two trains bound for Upper Egypt, set fire to 10 railway carriages and cut several telephone and telegraph lines.

The depot riot quickly spread to the warehouse of the Railway Authority's department of bridges, from which some 300 workers poured out and, joined by many residents in the nearby neighbourhood, converged upon Sheikh Said Square in Sabtiyya. Police forces which appeared at the scene were greeted by a hail of stones, in response to which they opened fire, injuring several men and women. The skirmish only subsided when the workers agreed to disperse, which they did in orderly fashion, departing to their homes in groups of four.

When the dust cleared, the two sides, protesters and authorities, surveyed the damage. They were considerable: seven dead and 93 wounded, of which four were in critical condition. Moreover, an official report issued the following day by the Ministry of Interior listed 12 dead in addition to 119 wounded who were being treated in Qasr Al-Aini hospital.

On Friday, 15 May, came the turn of Al-Sayeda Zeinab and Shubra. In Al-Sayeda, demonstrators thronged in front of Al- Munira Mosque where ex-Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas was performing prayers. Demonstrators pelted Al-Ahram's vehicles with stones and bricks, the newspaper's correspondent on the scene reported. Then, "police forces arrived and dispersed the protesters, after having arrested about 30 individuals." In Shubra, another mosque, Al-Khazandara, was the scene of more demonstrations. After coming out of prayers, protesters rallied and in the course of their demonstration they attacked a tram that happened to be passing by at the time.

While little of note occurred in Alexandria, where police had been on the alert to prevent disturbances, demonstrations swept Port Said, Al-Gharbiya and Al-Daqhaliya. In Port Said, employees in the various Port Authority agencies refused to board the buses the police had brought in to transport them to the polling stations. "All refused to exercise their right to vote, apart from a handful who had been appointed to the polling stations," reported Al- Ahram's correspondent in Port Said. That afternoon, demonstrators marched through the streets chanting slogans in support of the Wafd and its leader Mustafa El-Nahhas. By the end of the day, it was announced that only 287 out of 8,760 registered voters had cast their ballots. "To give them credit, the people of the Shaab Party and the police tried all possible means to urge people to vote but their efforts were to no avail."

Tanta, capital of Al-Gharbiya Directorate, saw a repeat of events in Al-Wayli. On election day, 20 women were arrested for having demonstrated against the elections and prevented from contacting their family members. At 10.00am the following day, demonstrators rallied in Al-Sa'a Square, "where the women who were arrested could be seen leaning out of the windows of the rest area for female detainees, waving their handkerchiefs at the protesters in the street. When police saw this, they went up to the rest area, closed the windows and dispersed the female protesters. Afterwards, students from Tawfiq and Tanta secondary schools staged a march but were intercepted by forces headed by the police commissioner at Al-Ga'fariya Street and dispersed."

In Al-Daqhaliya, demonstrations were more widespread and more violent, especially in Daqadous, four kilometres outside of the directorate capital. In that village, protesters stormed the polling station, smashed the ballot boxes and destroyed ledgers and other documents. Al-Ahram's reporter recounts, "It so happened that the deputy chief of police was patrolling the polling stations. When he, in the company of the district police commissioner and a contingent of police, arrived in Daqadous the villagers attacked the commissioner, pelting him with stones and bricks and forcing him to flee to the home of the mayor. Meanwhile, they closed in on the district police commissioner, Sergeant Abdel-Meguid Sherif, and beat him to death."

In Mit Ghamr, villagers took advantage of the hasty departure of military forces to Daqadous to attack the home of the mayor and a government vehicle. When forces returned and clashed with the rioters, they opened fire, killing six and wounding 23. When villagers in nearby Mit Muhsin heard the echo of the gunfire, a band of them gathered, attacked the polling station and tore up the ballots.

In Upper Egypt, authorities had taken extra precautions, aware that any disruptions in that part of the country would be difficult to contain. From Girga, Al-Ahram's correspondent reported that police forces had surrounded the home of senior Wafd leader Fakhri Abdel-Nur in order to prevent him from contacting local residents. "After the polls closed and the blockade was lifted, the provincial director ordered the house surrounded again for fear that Fakhri Bek would attempt to contact the delegates elected to cast votes in the second phase of the elections. At one point, a certain Mohamed Abdel-Rahim Hamada attempted to enter Fakhri's home and although he was initially turned away, he succeeded in eluding the guards. When he reemerged, he was arrested, taken to the police station and then released."

On 19 May, many a mouth must have fallen agape upon reading the following statement delivered by Ismail Sidqi: "The elections, held over a course of three days, produced splendid results. How can the government help but feel supremely delighted after having learned that voter turnout exceeded all previous elections held under the two-tier system. These elections even surpassed their counterpart in 1923, at the time when the entire Egyptian nation was at the height of its zeal for a parliamentary system that would inaugurate a new page in its political and social life."

More audaciously yet, Sidqi said: "The political battle between the government and the opposition concluded with a government victory. The opposition had sought to discredit the constitution by boycotting and agitating against the elections. However, the nation declared its support for the constitution by turning out to the polls. In turning a deaf ear to the incitement of the detractors, the nation had given its verdict on the dispute between the government and its adversaries because the elections of voter delegates are a form of plebiscite."

In a counter statement, Mustafa El-Nahhas listed the government's many violations of the rules and principles of fair elections. They included instructions to polling officials to coerce voters and forge ballots. Orders were given to district police commissioners to conspire with local mayors to screen candidates on the basis of their political views and to screen electoral boards to ensure they would comply with government directives. In addition, local police commissioners were given full authority to dismiss any local mayor they felt would impede the electoral process or prevent the free movement of members of the opposition.

El-Nahhas also accused the government of taking a number of other measures to produce voter turnout. Instructions were issued to all government employees to participate in the elections or otherwise suffer the consequences. Police vehicles appeared at the homes of some abstaining voters in order to escort them to polling stations under coercion, while more ordinary voters had their homes raided at night and themselves carted off to polling stations in police vans. Indeed, entire villages were cordoned off, preventing voters from leaving unless they had obtained a special pass. If the stick, literally, was the most common form of punishment, there was the occasional carrot, one of which came in the form of a promise for exemption from certain taxes in exchange for going out to vote.

There followed a lengthy list of measures the government used in order to rig the outcome. Registers, El-Nahhas claimed, revealed votes cast by people who never showed up, especially illiterates. Other people were brought in to vote in the name of registered voters. Many of these carried slips of paper bearing the name of the person they were supposed to impersonate. Finally, polling board registers were destroyed and replaced by forged ledgers, after expelling those members of the polling boards that had refused to take part in the fraud.

Unabashedly, the government went ahead and published its official figures for voter turnout. In Cairo, it ranged from a low of 30 per cent in Al-Wayli to 62.4 per cent in Al-Khalifa and in Alexandria from 66 per cent in Karmouz to 84.7 per cent in Mina Al-Basal. According to these figures voter turnout was superb throughout the rest of the country with the exception of two constituencies: Port Said (four per cent) and Talkha, in Al-Gharbiya (seven per cent). More brazenly yet, it reported that total voter turnout in the recent elections -- 67.3 per cent -- outstripped the figures for the elections of 1923 and 1925, in which turnout was 58 per cent and 55.5 per cent respectively.

In her memoirs, the Fatma El-Youssef, founder of Roz Al- Youssef, recalls: "I took a tour of the various polling stations that day and found them totally empty and the nearby stores had their shutters pulled down. Yet there was Sidqi announcing that his party won and that 67 per cent of registered voters took part in the elections. The figure was a pure fabrication of course and for a long time became a byword in the press for ridiculing Sidqi."

The eminent journalist's observation was echoed by two of her contemporaries: Mohamed Zaki Abdel-Qadir in The Ordeal of the Constitution and Abdel-Rahman El-Rafie in In the Wake of the Revolution. Abdel-Qadir, who worked for Al-Shaab, the mouthpiece for the political party Sidqi founded, wrote of the elections: "They were a play stage-managed by government bureaucrats who had pre-assigned the roles for the winners and losers. The parliament emerged precisely as the government had hoped, but it was in one valley and the people were in another." El-Rafie was a member of the Nationalist Party which had taken part in the elections. In his historical work he wrote that the countrywide boycott of the elections was as impressive in scale as the national boycott of the Milner Commission that had come to Egypt to investigate the causes of the 1919 Revolution.

Naturally, the Al-Ahram management was as aware of the true nature of the elections as its fellow journalists and writers. In order to remain true to its reputation it had to write something, but without putting itself at risk. The report from its correspondent in Alexandria was, thus, typical of its post-election day coverage. The journalist wrote that he had observed some "irregularities" in the balloting process in certain constituencies. "Some voters cast their ballots in Al-Wardian and then moved on to Al-Mafrouza and voted there." He added that it was rumoured that the same group had then gone to Mina Al-Basal and voted for a third time there.

Sidqi was a unique brand of Egyptian politician and it was, therefore, not surprising that he would continue to wield a big stick at all who dared oppose him. Hardly had "no-election day" ended than special courts were arranged to try all who had incited the boycott. No one was spared, neither Wafd leaders in the provinces nor the women who had protested against the elections in Cairo and Tanta, although most of them were handed verdicts with suspended sentences. So sweeping was Sidqi's clampdown that it was reported that one man was brought to court on drunk and disorderly charges for having marched through the street shouting, "Down with Sidqi!" Such works the eternal megalomania of despots.

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

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