The birth of Egypt’s 1923 constitution occurred under highly complex circumstances.
A popular revolution led by the Egyptian bourgeoisie, according to historian Abdel-Azim Ramadan, had taken place in 1919, garnering support from workers, peasants, intellectuals, men, women, Muslims, Copts, young people, and elders alike.
As a result of this popular pressure, Britain relinquished part of its control over Egypt through its February 1922 Declaration announcing the end of the British protectorate and the establishment of an independent and sovereign state. However, this independence was incomplete and did not fulfil the rightful struggle for full independence.
Despite opposition from the Wafd Party led by Saad Zaghloul, which regarded the declaration as a national catastrophe, some of Egypt’s political elites regarded it more realistically. According to historian Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyed-Marsot in her book “Egypt’s Liberal Experiment 1922-1936,” they saw it as a potential stepping stone towards a constitutional and parliamentary system in Egypt, even though it involved British support for the monarchy at the expense of the people.
The letter sent by politician Abdel-Aziz Fahmi to then Egyptian prime minister Abdel-Khalek Tharwat in April 1922 after the formation of the committee responsible for drawing up the new constitution sheds light on the political landscape of the time. In his letter, Fahmi emphasised national sovereignty as the ultimate source of authority and highlighted the fact that revolutions typically topple thrones and challenge princes.
Sovereignty had finally returned to Egypt after intense efforts and resistance against the British occupiers. But some Egyptians still saw fit to hand it over to the monarch. Fahmi argued that the Egyptian people – men, women, young people, and even the yet unborn – should participate in drafting the new constitution, as it would represent their genuine rights.
Saad Zaghloul’s statements to the press at the time further illustrate the complexity of the political scene. He expressed concerns about granting significant power to a monarch who might be influenced by foreign interests, especially when foreign dominance prevailed in the country. He believed that the power left with the king under the proposed constitution could be used against the nation’s interests.
The two texts, Fahmi’s letter and Zaghloul’s comments, come out of a political landscape characterised by a clash between two factions: the Wafd Party, which was trying to safeguard the aspirations of citizens and the goals of the 1919 Revolution, and a political elite that viewed the new constitution as a step towards relative political and civil independence, even with the British supporting the granting of privileges to the monarchy.
It was in this context that the 1923 Constitution Committee, known as the Triumvirate Committee, was formed, with this excluding Wafd Party members. The committee faced the challenge of practically asserting national independence and laying the political and civil foundations of the state.
Discussions of general principles and those that took place in the Constitution Committee, presented in two parts in the published records, reflect the interactions of the political elites at the time, working under the pressure of the Wafd and, behind it, the Egyptian nationalist movement and the British.
According to historian Ahmed Al-Sherbini’s study of the 1923 constitution and its drafting, the Constitution Committee worked diligently in difficult circumstances before the issuance of the February 1922 Declaration.
At that time, the legal system was still used to prosecute Egyptian politicians. Even Saad Zaghloul, the Wafd leader, lived in exile with some of his colleagues for a time, while many party members and numerous political detainees remained imprisoned, despite the massive public support for the Wafd.
Despite these challenging circumstances, the committee reached different conclusions from those contained in the initial constitutional draft presented to the king, as these failed to fulfil its aspiration to designate the nation as the source of sovereignty within the constitution.
Although the resulting constitution did not fully express this consensus, the discussions that took place in drafting it, were foundational in identifying the elements of a modern political and civil state.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly