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«Joel Gordon THE FALSE HOPES OF 1950: THE WAFD'S LAST HURRAH AND THE DEMISE OF EGYPT'S OLD ORDER In January 1950, in the first free election held in ...»

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Int. J. Middle East Stud. 21 (1989), 193-214. Printed in the United States of America

Joel Gordon




In January 1950, in the first free election held in nearly eight years, Egyptians

went to the polls to return a Wafdist government to power. After having been

banished from office for five years, Egypt's majority party assumed office aware that it shouldered a heavy burden of responsibility. Between October 1944, when the King dismissed the war-time government of Mustafa al-Nahhas, and January 1950, eight minority governments governed, or tried to govern, Egypt. Escalating political violence marked a period of increasing disillusion with parliamentary rule that encompassed all sectors of Egyptian society. Indeed, it might be argued that Egypt's ancien regime survived until 1950 only because the minority govern- ments marshaled the coercive powers of the state to control the streets, campuses, and factories, where dissidence was most manifest. At the time, many sensed that if the political establishment failed to achieve the evacuation of British troops from Egyptian soil, contain rampant inflation, and narrow the gap between rich and poor, martial law could not save the liberal order from collapse. What would follow was uncertain, but talk of revolution, fearful or hopeful, filled the air.

The assumption of power by the Wafd in 1950 sparked renewed hope that the parliamentary order might right itself. Majority rule, many felt, would bring a welcome degree of political stability, the restoration of civil liberties, and, it was hoped, produce an agreement with Great Britain that would end the occupation.

The emergence of new, fresh faces in the Wafd's leadership ranks engendered hopes that the majority party would initiate a program of social and administra- tive reform and rise above the traditional political bickering that brought so many into the streets denouncing the political parties. Yet the promises of Wafdist rule went unfulfilled. Corruption at all levels of government, internecine feuding, the heavy-handed treatment of political opponents, and a policy of appeasing the Palace undermined the Wafd's popular base, reinforced Egypt's malaise for liberal institutions, and fostered a growing tolerance for nonconstitu- tional rule.

The Wafd's failure to rise to the challenge of 1950, a challenge it recognized so clearly, requires closer examination. Most accounts of the 1950-1952 period, looking ahead to the Free Officers' coup of July 1952, portray the government's collapse as a foregone conclusion. The works of Egyptian historians, in particular, ? 1989 Cambridge University Press 0020-7438/89 $5.00 +.00 This content downloaded from on Mon, 15 Apr 2013 00:14:21 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions 194 Joel Gordon influenced by Nasserist critiques of the liberal era or reflecting the viewpoint of nonparliamentary opposition forces, treat the government's downfall in a rather perfunctory manner. They dismiss the Wafd as a shadow of its former self, sated with corruption and nepotism, and increasingly under the sway of those least inclined to exert the forward, reform-minded leadership that Egypt so desperately sought.1 While much of this may be true, such a perception of the Wafd fails to explain the hopes that the 1950 government inspired and, consequently, the critical importance of its rule in paving the way for the military takeover.2 Of the myriad reasons cited for the Wafd's failure, the most compelling relate to inner turmoil-the personal and ideological rivalries which rent the majority party. Personal disputes and factionalism plagued the Wafd throughout the parliamentary era. Wafdist history is, in part, one of schism, defection, and expulsion of key party leaders who, in turn, formed a series of minority parties.

Popular faith in the majority party had been shaken in the 1940s. Nahhas' willingness to lead a government forced upon the King by a British ultimatum in February 1942, the publication shortly thereafter of Makram 'Ubayd's Black Book-a compendium of party corruption-and 'Ubayd's subsequent ouster tarnished the Wafd's image. Nevertheless, until the postwar years these battles remained confined to the party's upper echelons. Wafdist rank and file remained loyal to party leadership.3 By 1950, the situation within the party had become more volatile. If the Wafd was a dying relic of a dying age, there were forces within trying to revive the party, and a struggle for the Wafd's soul ensued. Although historians of the period have recognized this fact, they have placed inordinate importance on the rift between the left and right wings of the Wafd. While this division certainly bears import for the history of the parliamentary era, in 1950 the cabinet was the crucial battleground. There, aspirants to party leadership sparred for position in a contest that proved fatal to government and party, crippling policy making and drawing the Wafd toward abrogation of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, a popular but politically disastrous act. While internecine feuds cannot be separated from the specific persons involved, rivalries within the cabinet point up fundamental problems-both structural and attitudinal-within leadership ranks of the Wafd that checked the influence of new ideas and new party members when this was precisely what the party and the country so desperately needed.


In January 1945, three months after being dismissed by royal decree, the Wafd opted to boycott parliamentary elections administered by Sa'dist rivals. For the next five turmoil-filled years, the majority party watched from the sidelines as four ex-Wafdist leaders, at the head of minority coalitions, tried to contain political violence and social unrest. To a great extent they succeeded in checking the spread of extraparliamentary forces-communists, socialists, and Muslim Brothers.4 But the minority governments failed to reach an evacuation accord with the British and did little to address the social ills which fueled opposition in the streets. In 1946, Isma'il Sidqi returned from London with a draft treaty

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which met nearly all Egypt's demands, but Wafdist opposition blocked ratification. The following year, Mahmud al-Nuqrashi took Egypt's grievances to the United Nations with no result.5 The increasingly vocal call for social reform, spurred by the spiraling cost of living and a surge in unemployment following the Second World War, went largely unanswered.6 Sidqi railed against communism, Nuqrashi outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood (for which he paid with his life in December 1949), and Ibrahim CAbdal-Hadi imposed martial law. Still, by mid-1949, those who ruled Egypt reached a consensus, however disagreeable, that martial law alone could not preserve order.

In July 1949, with upcoming elections promised, the Wafd joined a national unity government led by Husayn Sirri, a Palace loyalist and former prime minister. Disputes over electoral redistricting polarized the cabinet, isolating the four Wafd ministers. On November 3, Sirri stormed out of a deadlocked cabinet meeting and delivered his resignation to the King. Reluctant to resist Wafdist calls for elections, Faruq charged Sirri to form a caretaker government to administer the voting.7 Expecting that the Wafd would be unable to capture an absolute majority, the King and his advisers aimed to bring about a new coalition. Wafdist leaders, however, rejected all talk of another unity cabinet.

"Nahhas is in a fighting mood," the British ambassador reported a week before the vote. If the Wafd could not form a government, Nahhas would lead a vigorous parliamentary opposition.8 The extent of the Wafd's victory in January 1950, came as a surprise not only to the Palace but also to Wafdist leaders who expected the contest to be rigged against them. The British ambassador judged the election "probably as fair as any ever held in Egypt." His American counterpart agreed.9 The Wafd polled

54.5 percent of the popular vote, down from 58.3 in 1942, but captured 228 of 319 seats, attaining an absolute majority. Faruq, furious at the outcome, chastised his advisors for neither foreseeing the results nor taking the proper steps to influence the vote.'? The Wafd celebrated its triumph with a passion bred by five years of banishment from power. Al-Misri, Egypt's largest daily and pro-Wafdist, proclaimed the victory a "peoples' revolution." For ten days, despite repeated entreaties by Nahhas to disperse, Wafd supporters paraded the streets between the new prime minister's Garden City villa and parliament. When Nahhas opened the new parliament on January 16, he and other ministers were forced to abandon their vehicles and wade through the throng.1 Surprise and joy quickly gave way to more sober assessments of the situation at hand. Nahhas and his colleagues recognized the immensity of the task they faced. Echoing the language of the royal rescript charging him to form a government, Nahhas pledged to follow a policy of unification, to direct his efforts towards "achieving the nation's aims, prosperity and stability, in an atmosphere of liberty, justice and equality."'2 After its first meeting, his cabinet promised to end martial law and open the doors of political prisons. Two new cabinet portfolios, national economy and rural and municipal affairs, pointed to a commitment to address domestic problems.13 In the Speech from the Throne, delivered before parliament at its opening session, Nahhas outlined his government's goals. British evacuation and the This content downloaded from on Mon, 15 Apr 2013 00:14:21 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions 196 Joel Gordon recognition of Egypt's sovereign rights over the Sudan headed the list. Nahhas spoke next of Egypt's relations with its Arab neighbors, the need to rejuvenate the Arab League and not to lose hope for an Arab Palestine. The remainder of the speech focused on domestic peace and social reform. The government, which had already lifted censorship of the press, promised to take immediate steps to end martial law. The new government would initiate measures "for the good of all classes, especially underprivileged peasants and workers." Nahhas pledged steps to lower the cost of living. The government proclaimed primary, secondary, and technical education to be free. A social security bill was in the works.

Nahhas promised legislation to mandate a reorganization of the government bureaucracy. Civil service would be based solely on merit; government employees would no longer fear a loss of post to political appointees.14 The government that Nahhas formed raised hopes that the Wafd would indeed follow through on these promises. Of Nahhas' seventeen ministers, six had no previous cabinet experience; of these, most were more technically qualified to hold office than was usually the case in a system in which political weight within the party counted far more than professional ability. In an unprecedented move, Nahhas entrusted four portfolios to men with only marginal ties to the party.

These four ministers inspired hope in reformist circles, Wafdist and non-Wafdist alike. The "professors"-Zaki 'Abd al-MutCal (finance), Hamid Zaki (state), Ahmad Husayn (social affairs), and Taha Husayn (education)-all held a Ph.D.

Each could boast, if not governmental experience, expertise in his field.

The cabinet reflected a compromise between traditional party interests and a recognized need for new faces and younger blood. Leading Wafdists retained their grip on important cabinet posts. Fu'ad Sirag al-Din, party secretary and power broker, took charge of the interior ministry. cUthman Muharram ran the public works ministry, the post he had held in every Wafd cabinet since 1930.

Muhammad al-Wakil (national economy) had been president of the Senate.

'Abd al-Fattah al-Tawil (justice), Zaki al-'Urabi (communications), Mahmud Ghannam (public health), Ahmad Hamza (agriculture), and other party elders sat in the cabinet. At the same time, Nahhas brought into the government two proteges, Muhammad Salah al-Din and Ibrahim Farag. Salah al-Din, the foreign minister, had served as Nahhas' private secretary and as an undersecretary in the foreign ministry; Farag had worked his way up from the Wafdist student movement and served as an undersecretary in the interior ministry. The professors all owed their appointments to their association with Ahmad Nagib alHilali, a member of the Wafd executive committee, known as a reformer with a stubborn independent streak.

Despite his aloofness from party affairs, Hilali wielded considerable influence in the formation of the 1950 government. A professor of civil law who had served in a minority government from 1934 to 1936, Hilali joined the Wafd in

1938. Close to Makram 'Ubayd, Hilali chose to remain with the Wafd after the former's ouster in 1942 and came closest in the public eye to replacing him as the conscience of the party. Dedicated to administrative reform and bitterly opposed to party patronage networks, Hilali gathered around himself a coterie of young academics and technocrats through whom he hoped to impress a reform agenda

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on the Wafd. He had become increasingly disillusioned with Wafdist leadership and withdrew from active participation in party matters. He refused to run for parliament in 1950, and Nahhas could not entice him to join the cabinet.15Hilali did suggest alternative candidates; that four posts went to men who received his blessing underlines the grudging respect with which his colleagues held him.

Of the four, the appointment of Zaki 'Abd al-Mut'al was the most surprising.

Traditionally, the finance post had been held by a leading party figure; Makram 'Ubayd, before his expulsion, had run the ministry in three previous Wafd cabinets. As professor of economics and finance and a former legal advisor to the commerce and finance ministries, 'Abd al-Mut'al carried strong credentials.

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