In this article, we shall discuss the history of the Egyptian Wafd Party following World War I. We will analyze the conditions in Egypt prior to World War I, and then the politics of the Wafd following the Paris Peace Conference. We will also discuss the role of Said Zaghlul in the creation and leading of the party in the country. As we shall see, the Wafd Party has been one of the most influential actors in Post World War I Egypt. As Hinnebusch (1984) explains: “The Wafd Party was one of the greatest political forces of modern Egypt. It emerged from the great Revolution of 1919, a mass nationalist uprising which embraced nearly all of Egyptian society. Its leaders sought, with partial success, to institutionalize the nationalist sentiment thus aroused into a sustained, all embracing movement, an instrument of controlled mass agitation and electoral mobilization with which to force the withdrawal of the imperial power” (Hinnebusch, 1984: 99)
Egypt before the Wafd Party
In the early 1800s, Egyptian governor Muhammad Ali moved the country towards political autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. He was able to do this by building a powerful military that threatened the empire directly. Muhammad Ali and his dynasty were able to continue to expand their influence in Egypt, and slowly cut away at Ottoman control. However, in the 1870s, Ismail, the leader at the time, due to significant debt, had to borrow money from European creditors. Unable to pay even the interest on his loans, he decided to sell his stakes in the newly formed Suez Canal. From then, Britain sent in officials and their military to ensure that the Suez Canal not only remained open, but that Britain would have great control over it. Furthermore, they wanted to make sure that Egypt would repay its debts to Britain.
However, this foreign colonial presence clearly was not sitting well with Egyptians. Whether it was the racism that British officials (such as Lord Cromer) had towards Egyptians, or their disregard to equality and democratic institutions, the willingness to accept British control was being challenged continuously.
The Formation of the Wafd Party
Then, following the end of the World War I, Egyptian revolutionaries felt that they must be given representation at the Paris Peace conference. They wanted to be the official representatives of Egypt. The British High Commissioner refused, and from this, the Wafd Party began lobbying to Egyptians about the importance of Egyptian independence.
Wafd Party leaders quickly saw that Britain had plans to keep the King in power. As a result of a lack of full independence and democratization from Britain, the Wafd party established and accepted their role as the prime revolutionary party. In fact, the Wafd was “Egypt’s main nationalist political party from 1923 to 1925, and heir to the anti-British 1919 revolution movement. The party was headed by Sa`d Zaghlul (d. 1927) and then by Mustafa al-Nahhas” (Laits.utexas.edu). Zaghlul was one of the most beloved Egyptian leaders at that time. As Mahmoud (2015) writes:
The founder of Wafd, Saad Zaghloul, was not just an Egyptian national hero; he represented the aspirations of many Egyptians to have a contemporary, independent state that values all its citizens regardless of religion, ethnicity, class, or gender. That is precisely why, in the 1919 uprising against the British, Egyptians chanted “Saad! Long live Saad!” For them, he was the humble Egyptian citizen who understood the poor, and at the same time, the Pasha who fit in with the aristocracy. Zaghloul’s ability to manage this delicate balance was crucial for his success and for the popularity of his party, which continued after his death under the leadership of his successor, Mustafa al-Nahas.
However, the British, understanding the power and threat that the Wafd Party and its leadership was to them in the immediate post-war period, “In March 1919 the British temporarily exiled its leaders Saʿd Zaghlūl, Ismāʿīl Ṣidqī, and Ḥāmid al-Bāsil” (Britannica, 2014) until they established greater control of Egypt. Furthermore, the British also responded to internal violence in the country with violence. Cleveland & Bunton (2013) explain that “In the countryside, angry peasants tore up train tracks, burned railcars, and killed British soldiers. The British met the civilian demonstrators with armed force, and by the end of 1919, more than 800 Egyptians had been killed and 1,400 wounded” (181).
Britain recognized the power and influence that Zaghlul and the Wafd party had, and brought them into talks on the future of Egypt. As a result of “independence” in Egypt by the British in 1922 (which was nothing like true independence), the Wafd Party leaders organized the official party (this occurred in 1923) (Britannica, 2014). Following their formation as an official political party, the Wafd Party began calling for elections in Egypt. And given their popularity, and the deep-seated anger that Egyptians had towards Britain and the King, it was no surprise that people supported the ideas and actions of the Wafd Party. In fact, “With the exception of the 1938 elections, the Wafd won every freely held election during the Liberal Era. During this time, it was in constant opposition to the King, who used his constitutional powers and as well as the Itihad Party to sabotage the Wafd in power” (Laits.utexas.edu). In fact, they won the 1924 elections with 90 percent of the vote (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). In addition to their electoral powers in the country, they also had a military presence in Egypt. It has been explained that in about “1937 the Wafd organized the League of Wafdist Youth (Rabitat ash-Shubbān al-Wafdiyyīn) in order to train future members. The league became a source for the Wafd’s paramilitary organization, the Blueshirts, which had its fascist counterpart in the Greenshirts” (Britannica.com).
The Fall of the Wafd Party
Despite the mass support that the Wafd Party received in Egypt in the early years following the end of World War I, their popularity began to decline after what observers and citizens in Egypt saw as a Wafd Party moving away from their earlier principles of Egyptian independence and anti-revolutionary positions. For example, in the late 1920s, following the death of Zaghul in 1927, the Wafd party was losing a lot of the esteem that they had in years past, in part because of increased corruption (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
In addition, their reputation took a major hit in the mid-1930s when they agreed to sign the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. This Treaty, while supposedly giving Egyptians more influence over their country, still allowed it to be overseen by British powers. Furthermore, Egyptians continued to see corruption on behalf of the Wafd Party, where, in the late 1930s and then in the early 1940s, people continued to question whether the Wafd Party continued to have Egyptians’ interests at heart. This came to a point in 1942 where, the British, distrusting the King’s loyalties and ability to govern Egypt in their interests, turned to the Wafd Party to help ensure the stability of Egypt. The Wafd Party, historically openly against the British and the King, decided now instead to accept the British offer of power-sharing with the King. To many, the Wafd was no longer the Wafd of Zaghlul and the early revolutionaries.
Interestingly, the decline of the Wafd Party coincided with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Throughout these years, while not active in elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s message of social services and political points against the British, the King, and Israel won them many supporters in Egypt. Then, as society saw concessions by the Wafd Party, they turned in larger numbers towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Wafd Party itself, while it did reach power again in 1950, dissolved shortly after, ending what was once one of the most popular and dominant political parties in Egypt. The reason that the Wafd Party ended was that in 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers came to power. Nasser shut down political parties in 1954 (although some did operate underground).
New Wafd Party
The New Wafd Party was formed in 1978, decades after the “Old Wafd Party” dissolved. They received additional attention following the 2011 Uprisings in Egypt. The “New Wafd Party” took their name from the old Wafd Party, and continues to reference the historical party in their electoral work. For example, in an October 2015 interview, “Current head of the Wafd Party El-Sayed El-Badawi promoted his party’s “100 years of history”” (Darwish, 2015).
However, despite their reference to historical legacy, scholars argue that the New Wafd Party has not lived up to the early years of the Old Wafd Party, and were unable to do what many in society hoped they would be able to accomplish. Specifically, “The high expectations, however, failed to materialize. Instead of revitalizing Egypt’s democracy, or at least pushing Mubarak’s regime out of its comfort zone, the Wafd opted to maintain the status quo, accepting the role of a “decorative opposition” that legitimized rather than discredited the regime. During the 2005 presidential elections, the Wafd’s Noaman Gomaa ran for president alongside Mubarak and Ayman Nour, despite a boycott by other parties. This in turn legitimized the outcome in favor of Mubarak. Gomaa’s poor performance in the presidential election, together with an equally poor party performance in the parliamentary elections, created serious divisions within the party” (Mahmoud, 2015).
Mahmoud (2015) also notes that the New Wafd Party today not only is quite different than the Old Wafd Party, but that it also has several internal questions that it needs to answer. Mahmoud (2015) writes: “Sadly for the Wafd, it is relying heavily on the grandeur of its past, rather than its present achievements – on the old Egyptian Wafd, which was led by true statesmen who stood by their principals. The Wafd Party has shifted from the party that campaigned for freedom to a shallow, go-with-the-flow party that is willing to accommodate everything from authoritarianism and revolution to Islamism and a coup, with survival as its sole aim. The Wafd also suffers from a deep identity crisis. It has become neither liberal nor secular, and enjoys no distinct differences that make it stand out among other non-Islamist Egyptian parties.”
Overall, the Wafd Party was highly influential–particularly in its early years–of not only challenging Britain, but also shaping the direction of Modern day Egypt.
Britannica (2014). Wafd, Political Party, Egypt. Available Online: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Wafd
Cleveland, W.L. & Bunton, M. (2013). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado. Westview Press
Darwish, P. (2015). Egypt’s Wafd Party Invokes Past Glories in Parliamentary Bid. Ahram. 12 October 2015. Available Online: http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/164/153773/Egypt/Egypt-Elections-/Egypts-Wafd-Party-invokes-past-glories-in-parliame.aspx
Hinnebusch, R.A. (1984). The Reemergence of the Wafd Party: Glimpses of the Liberal Opposition in Egypt.
Laits.utexas.edu (2007). Egypt: Liberal Era Politics, 1919-1952. Available Online: http://laits.utexas.edu/modern_me/egypt/3/parties
Mahmoud, N. (2015). The New Old Wafd Party. Atlantic Council. May 27, 2015. Available Online: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/egyptsource/the-new-old-wafd