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The coup against democracy is par for the course in Egyptian politics

January 27, 2014 at 1:55 pm

In January 1924, Saad Zaghloul became the Prime Minister of Egypt after the Wafd Party won the parliamentary elections. This victory came after the birth of a new Egypt and the adoption of a new constitution declaring the country to be a sovereign state on February 28, 1922. The new state was able to live the democratic experience, which had only occurred in brief periods throughout the 19th century. Egypt then entered a liberal era that was marked by coups against democracy. The duration of these coups was not brief. In fact, a number of thinkers and writers of the time looked for a name for such deviations, something that would demonstrate their belief that they were exceptions and that politics would return to their natural state. They came up with “constitutional coup”.

Such coups have manifested themselves in various ways and in times which differ in many ways. The first “constitutional coup” occurred in November 1924, a mere ten months after the Ministry of the People was formed. This coup was the result of a series of events that required the participation of the nation’s staunchest revolutionaries. The conspiracy took advantage of outside forces to achieve insidious results that were extremely damaging to the wellbeing of the state, the people and by default the interests of the conspirators as well. The supposed rationale for taking the “Ministry of the People” away from the rule of the people was that it failed to ensure security and maintain order. Political assassinations followed and the press played a significant role in promoting the idea that the government was unable to combat this criminality. The media showed no shame in its accusations against Zaghloul and his ministry.

The orchestrated media lies succeeded in instilling hatred in the people. This led eventually to the revoking of the constitution and dissolution of parliament. There is no doubt that the individuals who had lost in the elections welcomed these events with open arms. Those who do not agree with the constitution or the parliament are quick to cheer when such things take place; those who are bothered by accountability and transparency find the constitution and the parliament to be a hindrance. It is no secret that corrupt senior officials at the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule were advocating a return to an era with no parliament and calling for the abolition of the Shura Council and the Constituent Assembly because, in their opinion, these two institutions were the biggest obstacles to progress and stability under their control.

After that first coup in the twenties, the Egyptian people fought for the right to free and fair parliamentary elections only to have the Prime Minister, who had conducted the elections with all fairness, fall because he was not willing to give up his prized democracy. Then, as a result of a British warning and Egyptian complicity, came a prime minister with a strong body and a calm demeanour who promised to save what could not be saved. This was nothing more than an outright conspiracy.

In the steps that followed, parliament was dissolved and new elections were held with the belief that the new representation would exclude Wafdists or “Zaghloulists”. The biggest surprise was that the latter won their seats back and the people once again chose Saad Zaghloul to lead them. The conspirators against the constitution only had one way of dealing with their anger and that was to dissolve the parliament on the same day that it was formed, dubbing it the “eight hour parliament”. This revealed the true intention of the conspirators who tried to hide the fact that their main goal was to exclude the majority by any means necessary.

The opposition minority, believing that the world was against them, began to feel a sense of regret for what they did because they were treated badly. Before two years had passed, on the anniversary of the first coup, the minority found themselves joining the majority. Together they were able to focus their efforts on confronting tyranny and combating the aggression that resulted from the coup against democracy.

In 1926, a consensus was reached in Egypt and a parliament was established. This parliament chose a man for the presidency who was considered to be a genuine leader. He had been a prime minister and agreed to resign in order to become the president of this new consensus parliament, which gave Egypt the reputation it deserved. Three ministries were formed as part of a parliament in which the Wafd was the majority party. The parliament was headed by Adli Yakan Pasha, Abdel-Khalek Thawrat and Mustafa An-Nahas Pasha and it would have been possible for this coalition to remain in power for a long period of time had one man not considered himself to be more deserving than Mustafa Pasha of the presidency.

This man was none other than Mohammad Mahmoud Pasha, who is considered to be among the most prominent leaders of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party. Although he belonged to a minority party, he believed that his social affiliations, his personal characteristics and his relationship with Zaghloul would all help him to rise in the ranks towards the top post in the state. He knew that majority support determined this rank, more than any other factor. Mohammad Mahmoud Pasha decided to plot against the constitution, and started by removing Nahas’ three ministers from the government, so that the system could appear faulty and consequently lose its viability.

Like all conspiracies, the elements of the plot were exposed fairly early on. King Fouad made a pact with Mohammad Mahmoud Pasha promising that he would form a new parliament from which the Wafdists would be prohibited. Soon afterwards, the ministry began to talk of postponing the parliament’s formation. As soon as the deep roots of the plot were exposed, the constitution was nullified and the parliament was dissolved, beginning a new era of dictatorship in 1928. Even so, the Egyptian people were able to get things back on track within a year.

Any reader of history knows that that particular constitutional coup ended with a triumph for the people but there is yet another side to this story. Many authoritarian politicians were still lurking around in government and for this reason King Fouad wanted to lead yet another constitutional coup. He sought the assistance of a man who participated in every conflict with a mean demeanour and a heart of steel; who often expressed his firm belief that the people were comparable to teenagers who had never matured. This philosophy is common to many tyrannical governments regardless of who their subjects are. In this coup the people had to fight the bloody violence inflicted on them by Sidky Pasha, whose underhand methods knew no limits; he was known for his brutality.

Doing what no one before him had dared to do he implemented an alternative constitution to the one written in 1923, reorganising the structure of the government to make it difficult, if not impossible, to revert back to the rule of the people. However, they fought back and won through; the system returned, once again, to the rule of the people.

This period witnessed the incredible literary genius of Al-Aqqad, who used words to crush anyone who encroached on the rights of the people. Through his strong will and dignity, his stature was greater than any other artist in the modern era in Egypt.

The reaction of the people convinced the authorities those who lived inside or in close proximity to a palace that disregarding the constitution was nothing short of blasphemy. They learned that the people would neither allow it to happen nor forgive anyone who infringed on their rights. Thus, the constitution of 1923 was restored and remained intact for the benefit of the people until the army’s tanks destroyed it.

When King Farouk came to power he did not nullify the constitution throughout his reign, even when he dissolved the parliament in 1938, 1944 and 1952. All three of these parliaments were completely Wafdist in character, achievements, passion and determination. The King’s reign began after the Wafd Party had set the fundamental ground rules during the term of the Trusteeship Council of 1936-1937. One cannot ignore the Treaty of 1936 between Britain and Egypt, the abolition of privileges in 1937, followed by the inauguration of Farouk himself once he had come of age.

Farouk’s reign witnessed a new kind of coup the heroes of which were palace men and their entourage. These coups began in 1937 when it was believed that the Wafd’s time in government should come to an end because they had failed to achieve justice and avoid exclusion. It was felt that the Wafd Party favoured the majority at the expense of minorities. In 1937 a new ministry was formed; known as the Grand Ministry it was headed by Mohammad Mahmoud and included many nationalist and historical figures such as Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayed and Abdul Aziz Fahmi. Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud Al-Nuqrashi split from the Grand Ministry and formed their own party known as El-Heba As-Sadiya. In addition, there were also remnants from the King’s parties and the National Party, which dealt with politics from a distance. In fact, the National Party lived by its romantic philosophy: “Negotiate only after clarity has been reached.”

Although these individuals had many supporters, they were not “the majority” by any means. The hyperbolic portrayal of them as such bears a remarkable similarity to the rather cinematic portrayal of June 30, 2013. One day, and soon, the truth will be revealed and people will realise that what happened on the streets recently was portrayed as much more than it actually was.

King Farouk’s main goal was to be rid of this formidable coalition though it had only existed for two years. The coalition did not have the willpower and courage needed to make a grand return like their predecessors in 1926. The main reason for this was that many were concerned about the potential for a Second World War at the time. As a result, King Farouk punished three ministers without having come to the same understanding that the British had before him; the rule of the people must return to the people. The British also saw that Nahas Pasha needed to return to the government and form a purely Wafdist ministry as opposed to a coalition that would allow a split to occur, as was the case with President Morsi exactly sixty years later.

In February 1942, Nahas returned to power and King Farouk continued his frequent ambushes until he was overcome with a sense of urgency in October/November 1944. The coalition (ministerial and parliamentary) returned, and this time it relied on Ahmed Maher, the very man who was responsible for the largest split in Khamis Pasha’s period in office. Maher was in power for less than five months and his rule ended with his death in February 1945. He died on the same night that Parliament gave him its approval for Egypt’s entry in the World War and joining the Allies in the United Nations.

All these events occurred while Nahas and the Wafd were locked out of power, including the 1948 war in Palestine, which is considered to be the largest military event of that era. Logically, the Wafd needed to return to power but its leadership refused to return without legitimate parliamentary elections that would ensure their right to govern. The Wafd eventually returned to power and governed for two years from 1950 to 1952, until the Cairo Fire. This incident was organised by conspirators who wanted to keep the Wafd out of power and initiate a transitional period that would pave the way for the military coup of 1952, otherwise known as the revolution of July 23, 1952.

This coup was the most dangerous of all as it was enough to eliminate all elements of democracy in Egypt. It is this which has ensured that the spirit of democracy was removed from, and is still totally absent from, the hearts of the elite. Their personal interests are both directly and indirectly tied to the absence of democracy. They will continue to fight against democracy rather than for it, all the while diminishing its value and never holding it in high regard.

The author is an Egyptian historian. This article is a translation of the Arabic text published in Al Jazeera Net on 1 August, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.