A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Egyptian Army in Politics, 2: 1952 and All That

I'm on vacation. As I've done in recent years, I've prepared a number of posts on topics of historical and cultural interest ahead of time, posts unlikely to be overtaken by events. There will be one or more of these per day, and I may drop in to comment on current developments as required.
 "The Army Carries Out a Peaceful Military Movement."
"Dismissal of a Number of Senior Officers and Protection if Public Faciilities."

My survey of the Egyptian Army in Politics began with my July 12 post on Colonel Urabi's revolt in 1881-1882.

In the ensuing 70 years the Army was rarely directly involved in politics, given the presence of British troops in Egypt as a counterbalance. There were some military plots during the Second World War, and military dissatisfaction with King Farouq began to build after the defeat in the 1948 First Palestine War/Israeli War of Independence.

Sixty-one years ago today, all that changed. A group of dissatisfied officers, mostly colonels and lower but including General Muhammad Naguib, seized power, deposed the King, and the following year declared a republic.

The Free Officers (1st row: Nasser, Naguib, Abdel Hakim Amer, Sadat)
In many ways all of Egyptian history since July 23, 1952 (labeled a "Revolution" after the fact) grew from the events of that day. With the exception of the one year from last July to this one, the Army has directly or indirectly been the primary source of legitimacy in Egypt ever since. With the Army now back in power it will be interesting to see how July 23, still Egypt's national day, is officially marked.

I have posted so often about 1952 that there is little new to add. You can read my posts from July of 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, as well as all my posts tagged Naguib, Nasser, or Sadat, since all three of Republican Egypt's first three Presidents were senior figures in the original Free Officers.

The coup itself was a classic one and became a model for the Arab military regimes of the 1950s and 1960s, with other countries' officers even adopting the name Free Officers and/or calling their junta a Revolutionary Command Council. After the Army's not-a-coup-really on July 3, the Denver Post posted a collection of photos of the preludes to the coup (including Black Saturday) and the coup itself, including some of the same photos I posted last Friday.

Naguib and Nasser
Although Muhammad Naguib was the ostensible leader of the coup and became first Prime Minister and then, after the proclamation of the republic, Egypt's first President, he was soon eclipsed by his Prime Minister, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and finally deposed by him; Naguib remained a nonperson until the Sadat years, but has been somewhat rehabilitated since.

Nasser became a symbol for the Arab world, first as the man who ended the British role in Egypt and then, in 1956, resisted the triple invasion of the British and French colonial powers plus Israel. Until his image received a setback in 1967 Nasser was enormously popular.
Naguib Outflanked
Nasser's socialist reforms were less successful and his introduction of a national security state that became the model of the mukhabarat republics that dominated the Arab world for years casts a shadow on his memory, but he still as many admirers.

The third President from the Free Officers, Anwar Sadat, has also had a mixed legacy. Having lived in Egypt for two of the eleven years of his Presidency, I can attest to the shifts in his image through the years. At first seen as very much in Nasser's shadow, the 1973 war made him a hero. His 1977 trip to Israel and subsequent peace treaty was much less popular, and led to Egypt's ostracism from the Arab world. By 1981 he had become increasingly repressive, and his funeral after his assassination that year was attended mainly by foreign dignitaries with most Egyptians excluded, a sharp contrast to the millions who turned out for Nasser's. Yet now, more than 30 years later, Sadat is increasingly popular in retrospect and often referred to as a martyred President.

Egypt's fourth President, Husni Mubarak, was too junior to have been in the Free Officers (he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1950), but he was very much a product of its legacy. Of Egypt's leaders since 1952, only Muhammad Morsi had no links to it. The Free Officers were forged in the 1948 war with Israel and led Egypt during the 1956, 1967, War of Attrition and 1973 wars. (By contrast, the current military chief, Gen. Sisi, is the first modern Egyptian military chief with no combat experience, being commissioned in 1977.)

So 1952, whether seen as a coup or a revolution, has dominated Egypt ever since.

Two videos, both in Arabic (though the first is probably self-explanatory, showing scenes of the coup; the second is Naguib addressing the country after the coup:

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Useful reminders. Something about the Nile Valley seems to encourage historical continuity. Apologists for the recent events may call them a "revolution" or, perhaps, a correction of the popular uprising of January 2011. Serious historians, however, are likely to describe Egyptian history since 1952 as three successful military coups d'etat ushering in ersatz "republics". The one constant is military control and persistence of the deep state.