Saad Zaghloul must be threshing around in his grave.
One of Egypt’s best-known and loved nationalist figures, Zaghloul led a delegation, or ‘Wafd’ to demand the immediate evacuation of British troops from Egypt in November 1918. He was immediately exiled to Malta.
The act unleashed a national fury that hadn’t been seen in modern Egyptian history. Thousands of Egyptians took to the street. United, Christians and Muslims surged against British troops who found that they couldn’t keep them back. Women stormed out of their homes, ripped off their veils and joined demonstrations for the first time.
It took three weeks, and the blood of over 800 Egyptians but the British capitulated. Zaghloul returned to form the Wafd party and fight for Egypt’s independence.
In 1923 a new constitution was signed and in the resulting elections, the Wafd party won 195 out of 224 seats.
For most Egyptians, the Wafd party represents a solidly nationalist secular liberal path that was to prove one of Zaghloul’s most enduring legacies. On the morning of Saturday, April 1st, 2006, that legacy was trampled through the mud outside the party’s headquarters.
There have been varying accounts of what happened on Saturday morning, but the following appears clear.
On February 18th of this year, the party’s High Assembly (spearheaded by Mahmoud Abaza and Mounir Fakhry Abdelnour, leading what became known as the party’s ‘reform movement’) put forward a motion to remove then party leader, Noaman Gomaa. It took them ten minutes to pass it. Gomaa, a presidential hopeful in the last presidential elections had performed badly and many thought that he should have stepped down. Not only did he not step down, he bitterly opposed the ruling and went to court, contesting its legality.
Due to apparent irregularities (there were differences in opinion over how many of the 60 members of the High Council were actually present and voting) the Attorney General’s office gave Gomaa permission to go back to party headquarters and resume his responsibilities until the party settled their differences. Gomaa promptly closed down the eponymous party newspaper, kicking off another struggle.
Matters came to a head last Saturday. Some time between 8 am and 10 am Gomaa arrived with anywhere between 60 and 100 supporters, among them Ahmed Nasser, a lawyer and member of the People’s Assembly and his son Ashraf. They marched into the party headquarters on Boulos Hanna Street in Dokki and took over.
Journalists in the paper on the premises were horrified to find that Gomaa’s men were armed, with knives and guns. Eyewitnesses claim that Gomaa’s ‘supporters’ were paid thugs – they allegedly relived journalists and other party members of their personal possessions at knife-point.
Furniture started flying around; journalists Nevine Yasser and Sahar Ramadan suffered serious injury to their legs when chairs were tossed at them. However, they were relatively lucky – 23 people had to be rushed to nearby hospitals that day, several of them in serious condition. One of them, Mamdouh Badawy, remains in critical condition, his spleen had to be removed after he’d been shot.
Party members loyal to the reformists started trying to storm the building – the gates of which had been welded shut and strung with barbed wire. Furious at being shut out, reformists started lobbing rocks and bottles at Gomaa’s men inside, who promptly started shooting.
Violence rarely subsides, it generally escalates. The reformists outside filled the empty bottles with petrol. On a quiet residential street in Cairo, enraged men started throwing Molotov Cocktails at armed men inside the headquarters of the country’s most venerable opposition party. The resulting fire destroyed a hall in the building that has witnessed some of this country’s most moving historical moments.
Deputy Party Leader Mahmoud Abaza turned up at one pm and refused to allow his supporters to continue trying to storm the building, fearing greater bloodshed. He called the head of Security in Giza Governorate.
They finally turned up at around 5 pm, eight hours after the shooting had first started.
The Wafd headquarters is in a residential area, surrounded by embassies and cultural centers. Those streets are heavily protected – and rightly so. It is inconceivable that a confrontation on this scale would not have drawn security forces immediately. It remains uncertain why it took so long for security to react.
This is not a blow that the Wafd party is going to recover from easily or quickly.
Once known as that party of Pashas (many of its members were culled from the country’s elite) the party still managed to speak for all Egyptians, regardless of their socio-economic status. When it was dissolved in 1953, along with all other parties by the Revolutionary Command Council, it managed to hold on to its legacy of fervent and devoted nationalism. Since its reconstitution in 1978 (and face-lift in 1983 as New Wafd) it has struggled to convince people of its legitimacy and viability. The party infighting and bickering in recent times has left voters disenchanted.
The events of last Saturday are likely to hack viciously at its ability to survive. Both sides dumped the blame squarely on each’s doorsteps, but there is no doubt that both sides resorted to violence. The reformists have denounced what they described as Gomaa’s thug tactics, but Abbas El-Tarabeely editor-in-chief of the Wafd told Al Ahram newspaper that he would personally shoot any reporter who supported Gomaa.
Egypt is suffering democratic hunger pangs – we know we need it but we’re uncertain how and when we’re going to get it. To many, the current parties are politically, ideologically and emotionally bankrupt.
Where, exactly, can voters turn?
Voters need something and someone to believe in. This country needs leaders who can take it forward and voters need to believe that the parties they vote for can steer their people through the rough waters they know lie ahead. They need to believe that its leaders can rise above personal feuds and rivalries and put the country first. Last Saturday was a bad day for Egypt’s opposition and for its people.
This is not what Saad Zaghloul was exiled for, it’s not what those 800 people died in the streets for. It isn’t even what we’ve come to expect from our political parties. Apathy and corruption are one thing – this kind of blindly egotistical violence is another.
The Wafd has a massive undertaking ahead. If it can rebuild its image and regain the confidence and faith of its followers, then it might indeed be a party worth following.