A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

For US Election Day: Egypt's 1923-24 Elections and Saad Zaghloul

Here in the US, as a few of you may have heard rumored, we're having a Presidential election today. Although  in the past few years the "purple finger" evidence of voting has led to much celebration in (and among outsiders, about) the Middle East as Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries have begun to hold rather more competitive elections than the old 99.9% for the ruling party kind, it's also worth remembering that these were not the first competitive elections in the region.

Before I go on, a quick aside to my US citizen readers at home or abroad, and to new voters in the Middle East: I'm old enough to remember the line in JFK's inaugural address about this being "not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom." And I'm still young enough to retain enough idealism to believe it. After two years of rhetoric, excessive campaigning, constant advertising and annoying phone calls, that's now all just noisy wind. The power of democracy isn't in the loudspeakers and the blaring commercials, but in the quiet when hundreds of millions of individuals go behind a curtain and in the quiet privacy of their own thoughts make a choice. My daughter said last night she was so sick of the commercials she wished she could punch the candidates. I told her I understood her frustration but that those of us over 18 get to punch something more long-lasting in its effects. A ballot or a voting machine.

(We now return you to our regular blogpost. I'm Michael Dunn and I approved this message.)

During what has been called "the liberal age" in the Arab world, several countries had mixed political systems with elected parliaments, competitive political parties, and sometimes a moderately free press., Egypt beginning in 1923, Iraq beginning in 1925, Syria during and after the French mandate, all had elected parliaments of a sort. In Egypt and Iraq these had to balance against a strong throne (and the British), and women couldn't vote in any of these systems — but they couldn't yet vote in France, either, and had just won the vote in the US and UK. Flawed and imperfect as they may have been, elections were held and political parties existed during the liberal interlude, which largely coincided with the inter-World Wars period and the immediate post-WWII years.

So today I thought I'd note Egypt first Parliamentary elections after its nominal independence in 1922 and its adoption of the liberal constitution of 1923. As this Al-Ahram English article on the 1923 vote— an article you should read in full — notes,
On Saturday 12 January 1924, the representatives of the Egyptian electorate made their way to the polling stations in order to elect Egypt's first truly popularly elected parliament since the introduction of the parliamentary system 58 years previously.
The description, "truly popularly elected parliament," is appropriate. The Constitution of 1923 was the basis of the electoral law. Article 1 of that law stipulated, "Every Egyptian male has the right to elect the members of the Chamber of Deputies upon fully attaining the age of 21 as reckoned in Christian calendar years and to elect the members of the Senate upon fully attaining the age of 25 as reckoned in Christian calendar years."
Under British rule there had been a financial qualification for the franchise. As previously noted, women could not vote, and the uneducated workers and fellahin were likely to be influenced by their employers or the big landholders, but elections did occur and political parties did emerge.

Though the franchise was general among males, the election was somewhat indirect (just as we Americans are not voting directly for the President today, but for electors by state: it's the electoral vote that counts).  The general population voted  on September 27, 1923 for 38,000 eledssctors who in turn voted in January for the representatives.

Saad Zahgloul Pasha
The impetus for Egyptian independence in 1922 had been the Revolution of 1919 (or, in British terminology, the uprising of that year) and the exile of Saad Zahgloul; (and yes, that makes two Saad Zaghloul posts in less than a week). With independence Zaghloul had returned from exile as the hero of the nation; his "Wafd" (originally his intended Egyptian "delegation" to the Paris Peace Conference) now the most powerful nationalist party in the country. In the elections, unsurprisingly, the Wafd won 188 out of 215 seats, and Zaghloul became Prime Minister.

I can't find any pictures of people voting in the 1923-24 elections, but something I have in fact posted here before, two years ago, there are a couple of rare surviving clips showing Zaghloul's return from exile and the crowds greeting him. There are very few early videos of the Middle East that aren't either of World War I or travelogues of the pyramids or religious sites; these early versions of newsreels are therefore of interest. Though not of the elections proper they give some idea of the enthusiasm for Zahgloul:

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