Wafd Party (Egypt)

Wafd Party flag
Wafd Party flag
The Wafd was the major political party in Egypt from its inception in 1918 to the military-led revolution in 1952. In the fall of 1918, shortly before the end of World War I, a delegation, or Wafd, of Egyptian nationalists, led by Sa'd Zaghlul, met with Reginald Wingate, the British high commissioner, to discuss the future of Egypt.

In the course of the meeting, the delegates demanded complete independence (Istiqlal Tam). Wingate told the delegates that the matter would be referred to officials in London, and in his correspondence with the Foreign Office he recommended that negotiations should be held.

However, the Foreign Office was occupied with more pressing matters involving Germany and what should be done in Europe after the war, nor was the government willing to give up its control over the Suez Canal.

Consequently, the demands of the Wafd were flatly rejected, and the delegates were denied permission to attend the Paris Peace Conference. When Zaghlul and others were arrested and deported in the spring of 1919, demonstrations broke out all around the country.

A massive full-scale revolution resulted as Egyptians from all classes, both sexes, all religions, and all professions joined in strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations demanding independence and the release of the Wafd leaders. Hundreds were killed, and the British were forced to bring in troop reinforcements to put down the revolt.

Wingate was recalled and replaced by General Edmund Allenby, a hero of World War I. The Foreign Office anticipated that Allenby would take a hard line and crush the nationalist movement.

Allenby recognized that it was impossible to quell nationalist demands and demanded that Zaghlul be allowed to meet with officials in London. The Wafd traveled to the Paris Peace Conference and to London, but negotiations failed. Upon their return, the demonstrations continued, and the Wafd retained the support of the majority of Egyptians.

Egyptian Wafd Party Members, c 1919.
Egyptian Wafd Party Members, c 1919.

The British granted nominal independence under a constitutional monarchy of King Fuad in 1922, but Britain retained widespread power, continued to station troops in Egypt, and interfered in Egyptian politics.

The interwar years were characterized by a tricorner struggle between the monarchy, the British, and the Wafd for political power. The Wafd won every honest election. In the 1924 elections it received a resounding victory, and Zaghlul became prime minister.

However, he was forced to resign following the assassination of Lee Stack, British sirdar (ruler) of the Sudan, while he was visiting his close friend Allenby in Cairo in 1924.

Furious, Allenby demanded, without direct permission from London, a public apology, a huge indemnity, the withdrawal of Egyptian troops from the Sudan, and prosecution of the killers. King Fuad, who disliked both the Wafd and the constitution, then appointed a more malleable cabinet.

Allenby was replaced by Lord George Lloyd, a hardline imperialist. Both Lloyd and the king worked to weaken the Wafd, encouraging the creation of a number of rival parties, but Lloyd's arrogance incited further Egyptian discontent.

Mustafa Nahhas
Mustafa Nahhas
Zaghlul died in 1927, and Mustafa Nahhas became the Wafd president. Nahhas briefly became prime minister in 1929, and in 1934 the new British high commissioner, Sir Miles Lampson (later Lord Killearn), recommended that the constitution be reinstated.

In 1936 the Wafd, led by Nahhas, won the elections and entered negotiations with the British. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 provided for the withdrawal of British troops except along the Suez Canal and was hailed as a victory for the Wafd.

In 1937 the Montreux Convention abolished the capitulations, extraterritorial rights and privileges enjoyed by foreigners living in Egypt, and gradually phased out mixed courts, which had given foreigners greater judicial privileges than Egyptian citizens received.

However, negotiations over the status of the Sudan, ruled by Britain with nominal Egyptian input, constantly deadlocked. Egypt had helped to pay for the conquest of the Sudan and had soldiers stationed there, but the British refused to link the issues of the Sudan and Egypt.

During the 1920s and 1930s more extreme political parties on the left and right emerged. A number of paramilitary groups such as the Green Shirts, patterned on Benito Mussolini's paramilitary Blackshirts in Italy, engaged in terrorism and assassinations of political leaders.

The Wafd had its own Blue Shirts, who publicly fought rival groups. A growing gap between the rich and the poor contributed to the discontent. After Fuad's death in 1935, his son Faruk became king. Faruk was notably anti-British and also attempted to undercut the popularity of the Wafd.

When World War II broke out many Egyptians adopted a pro-German stance, not owing to any belief in Nazi ideology but on the basis of "an enemy of my enemy is my friend." Egyptians hoped that a British defeat would end the occupation. To counter palace opposition, the Wafd under Nahhas adopted a more flexible position vis-à-vis the British.

With the German army led by General Erwin Rommel advancing toward Egypt and the Suez Canal from North Africa, Britain was determined to protect its interests in Egypt. In February 1942 the British ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson, surrounded Abdin Palace in central Cairo with British troops and tanks. He issued an ultimatum that the king either appoint Nahhas prime minister or abdicate.

Faruk capitulated, Nahhas was appointed prime minister, but Faruk never recovered from the public humiliation. He became increasing, corpulent and earned a worldwide reputation for gamblingly, womanizing, and racing fast cars. The king gradually lost what public support he may have had among Egyptians.

However, having been put in power by the British, the Wafd was also discredited. Many young Egyptians turned to more radical movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The wartime Wafdist government failed to keep prices down, while mounting inflation and shortages caused more unrest, just as they had in World War I. In 1944, amid charges of corruption and nepotism, Nahhas was forced to step down.

The postwar era was marked by assassinations of top Egyptian politicians and armed attacks on the British army along the Suez Canal. The Arab loss in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War further alienated Egyptians, who viewed both the Wafd and the palace as inept and as having failed to meet their demands for the complete withdrawal of British troops from Egyptian soil.

However, Nahhas kept his popular image with flamboyant oratory, and the Wafd won the 1950 elections. By this time many of the old guard Wafdists had left the party to form other parties, but Nahhas failed to bring in new cadres with dynamic programs.

Negotiations with the British were reopened but stalled over the issue of the Sudan and the stationing of British troops along the Suez Canal. Demonstrations and attacks against the British escalated, and in 1952 the king was overthrown in a military-led revolution.

The revolution also marked the end of the Wafd. Nahhas and Fuad Siraq ad-Din, another key Wafdist, both resigned, and all political parties were formally dissolved in January 1953. Wafdist leaders were tried on charges of corruption, and some were jailed. Nahhas died in 1965.

Under the presidency of Anwar el-Sadat in the 1970s, the Wafd reconstituted itself as the New Wafd with Siraq ad-Din as president. Although the party attracted members from the urban upper and middle class, it never regained the mass popular support it had enjoyed in the first half of the 20th century.