Book Review: Moustafa Al-Nahhas revisited

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 15 Jan 2023

A recent book on the last leader of Al-Wafd prior to the 1952 Free Officers Revolution gives credit to the middle class in supporting the call for independence as embraced by Moustafa Al-Nahhas.

Moustafa Al-Nahhas


Moustafa Al-Nahhas Zaim Al-Tabaqah Al-Wousstah, 1927-1952 (Moustafa Al-Nahhas, Leader of the Middle Class – 1927-1952), Alaa Al-Hadidi, Dar Al-Shorouk, 2022

Moustafa Al-Nahhas is arguably the forgotten leader of Egypt’s most significant pre-1952 political party, Al-Wafd. In Egyptian drama and history curricula for national schools he is all but portrayed as the inevitable placeholder for Saad Zaghloul, the ultimate leader of Al-Wafd. He is not even put at the same level of significance as Makram Ebeid, Saad Zaghloul’s closest-ally-turned-adversary.

However, in his 255-page book, Alaa Al-Hadidi, a former diplomat and political commentator, offers Al-Nahhas in a different light. He shows a clever politician who is perfectly capable of playing the political game all the way through with clear and often realistic – a bit too realistic at times – objectives.

In the introduction to his nine-chapter book, each chapter of which comes with an incredible list of annexed references and footnotes, Al-Hadidi admits that his purpose is to revisit – or rather to provide due credit – to this political leader. According to the narrative offered by Al-Hadidi, Al-Nahhas was actually the leader of the national Egyptian movement in its pursuit of independence for an entire quarter century (1927-1952), but somehow has been dropped from the collective memory of the nation and its historians.

The profile that Al-Hadidi draws of Al-Nahhas in the book is far from personal. It is rather a profile of a man of a national political movement. He is therefore often presented in the contexts of political engagement with either the Palace (Al-Sarray) or the representatives of the British Occupation in Egypt. In this sense, Al-Hadidi is actually recalling the path of the Egyptian national movement in the second quarter of the 20th century and in so doing he is simply showing Al-Nahhas as the leader – a true leader and not just a replacement of the legendary Saad Zaghloul. In other words, Al-Hadidi wrote a book showing the next phase in Egypt’s political development following the 1919 Revolution.

Right from the onset, Al-Hadidi admits that his book is designed to offer the perspective of political science rather than history on these consequential years that saw continued demands for independence, the continued decline in the political capacity of the Palace, first under King Fouad and then under King Farouk, and the expanding volume and role of a middle class that was putting its weight behind the call for independence. In so doing, the author is not just showing Al-Nahhas as a full-fledged leader but also as “the most fitting” leader of the time given his ability to work with the social block that was pushing for independence and to work within the political context where negotiations for independence had to be pursued. It might not be an overreach to say that this book leaves the reader with the impression that with or without the 1952 Free Officers Revolution, Al-Nahhas could have continued to lead the movement towards eventual independence.

The most central point to the book, however, comes straight from its title: Al-Nahhas as a “leader of [and from] the middle class.” Unlike other prominent leaders of Al-Wafd, Al-Nahhas came from the heart of the middle class and he pursued a career as a lawyer – with his start at the office of Mohamed Farid, the successor of Moustafa Kamel in leading the National Party.

Lawyers and civil servants, Al-Hadidi reminds the reader, were the new “leading social echelon” in the early to middle decades of Egypt’s 20th century as the previously influential role of the military and religious institutions was suffering a setback, especially after the end of World War I. Lawyers, the author also notes, took the side of the 1919 Revolution in support of a wider national call for independence but also in protest of an attempt of the British Occupation to change the Egyptian legal system, that was largely inspired by the French system, to make it more compatible with the British legal system.

At the time, the book says, Al-Nahhas did play a key role in organising the participation of lawyers in the revolution – as he did with the civil servants. It also says that along with a group of key Al-Wafd figures, mostly lawyers, Al-Nahhas supported Saad Zaghloul in raising the bar of demands for independence negotiations with the British authorities. This led to his arrest in 1921 along with Saad Zaghloul.

In chapter seven of the book, Al-Hadidi draws what could safely be qualified as the master scene in the political path of Moustafa Al-Nahhas, as he gets ready to take over after the death of Saad Zaghloul. Then on 16 March 1928 he put together his first government in the start of a long political game with both the Palace and the British. This path is paralleled in the narration of Al-Hadidi with another path whereby the middle class seems to be taking over the national political call. And it is this dual-path that really offer the ultimate plot of this book.

Another factor contributing to the political ascendancy of the middle class, which is discussed in the book, was the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 that allowed the middle class to occupy a larger presence in the Egyptian Army. This paved the way for the Free Officers Movement, who largely came from the middle class, to take over in July 1952 while Al-Nahhas was in Europe on summer holiday.

The following year, Al-Wafd was banned and Al-Nahhas was briefly imprisoned and later put under house arrest, surviving until 1965.

Apart form the main narrative of the book, Al-Hadidi offers a text that is fleshed out with political anecdotes. This is especially apparent when he reflects on the expansion of politics in way that eventually challenged the dominance of Al-Wafd and the confrontation between university students and police in December 1948 and later in January 1952.

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