A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 23, 1952

Fifty-seven years ago today, at about 7:00 in tbe morning Cairo time, Lieutenant Colonel Anwar Sadat went to Egypt's Broadcast House and read communiqué number one in the name of General Muhammad Naguib and the Free Officers Movement: [Added months later: here's the actual audio in Arabic]
To the People of Egypt:

Egypt has passed through a critical period in her recent history characterized by bribery, mischief, and the absence of governmental stability. All of these were factors that had a large influence on the army. Those who accepted bribes and were thus influenced caused our defeat in the Palestine War. As for the period following the war, the mischief-making elements have been assisting one another, and traitors have been commanding the army. They appointed a commander who is either ignorant or corrupt. Egypt has reached the point, therefore, of having no army to defend it. Accordingly, we have undertaken to clean ourselves up and have appointed to command us men from within the army whom we trust in their ability, their character, and their patriotism. It is certain that all Egypt will meet this news with enthusiasm and will welcome it.
The coup launched by the Egyptian Free Officers on the night of July 22-23, 1952, was neither the first military coup in the Arab world (Iraq had its first coup in 1936; Syria began a string of coups in 1949) nor the last, but many of those to come after it would consciously model themselves on Egypt's, even to calling their movement the Free Officers or naming a Revolutionary Command Council. And while Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Yemen have seen a number of coups each, Egypt's remains unique in its contemporary history: there has been none since. The emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser created a pan-Arab hero for many Arabs who never set foot in Egypt, and the Egyptian government of today is, despite enormous changes in ideology, organization, and international orientation, the direct heir of the military intervention of 1952. Whatever one may think of its results, it dominates the subsequent history of the Arab world.

So, while wishing my Egyptian readers a happy National Day, it may be worth meditating a bit on the legacy of the Thawra of 1952.

There has long been a debate in Egypt over whether the "Revolution of 1952" was really a Revolution (thawra) or merely another military putsch like Bakr Sidqi in Iraq or Husni Za‘im in Syria. The answer, I think, is that it began as a sort of ad hoc coup launched to forestall a move to arrest the Free Officers; at first it was uncertain of its direction, naming a civilian government under old-guard political figure ‘Ali Maher, and deposing the King (on July 26, another date for which streets, bridges etc. are named), but appointing a Regency Council to rule in the name of Farouq's infant son Ahmad Fuad II, technically the last King of Egypt. (He's still around by the way, in his late 50s and looking more and more like his father, living in Switzerland. He gave an interview a while back to Al-‘Arabiya, but spoke in French, presumably because he's not comfortable in Arabic. Actually, of the whole Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty, the only khedive/sultan/king who spoke Arabic natively was Farouq. Don't bet on a restoration. Ahmad Fuad II's ex-wife was Jewish and there are even rumors his kids — including the pretender "Prince of the Sa‘id" or heir apparent, Prince Muhammad ‘Ali — might even have Israeli citizenship, which makes restoration pretty unlikely indeed, though these rumors are officially denied.) In any event, there is no serious monarchical movement in Egypt. The dynasty was foreign in origin and, oddly enough, the only popular King was (for a while) Farouq.

When Ahmad Maher proved unsatisfactory Naguib was made head of the Revolutionary Command Council; when finally the monarchy was scrapped in 1953 Naguib became President and Nasser Prime Minister, but the two soon fell out themselves. Not until Nasser emerged as the clear leader did the coup begin to look a bit more revolutionary, with both genuine reforms (land reform, nationalizations) and some less encouraging signs (banning political parties, widespread arrests). Only a bit later did Arab nationalism become the dominant ideology of the regime, and confrontation with Israel really emerged in the midst of the crisis of the mid-50's over the Aswan Dam, the Czech arms deal, etc., but then I suspect most of my readers have studied Modern Middle East 101 and know this.

Egypt was ripe for revolution; the "Black Saturday" fires of early 1952 showed that, as did the multiple plots Western intelligence agencies kept hearing about: Communists, Muslim Brothers, various right- and left-wing Egyptian movements. Even King Farouq said that soon there would be only five Kings: the King of England and the four in the pack of cards. It was the Army that moved first.

The coup had its misfires. It was scheduled for August, but when the Free Officers won the elections to the Army Officer's Club, the King moved to overturn the results and the officers feared he was moving against them. Moving the coup forward encountered the problem that the officer in charge of signals, Sadat, had been in Sinai and only returned to Cairo the night of the 22nd, and then promptly went to the movies with his family. Though they started the Revolution without him, he recovered in time to read the communiqué.

Various accounts of the organization of the Free Officers differ in the memoirs of the various members. Sadat does not even agree with himself: he wrote two accounts in the 1950s, another in the late 1970s, and was working on more rewrites when he died. On his last visit to Washington in 1981 he told Ronald Reagan that the movie he went to on the night of the Revolution was a Reagan flick, but I don't think anyone has confirmed that, and by then Sadat was revising his personal autobiography so frequently I'm not sure even he was sure what was true.

They are almost all gone now. With the death of Zakariyya Muhieddin earlier this year, and that of Hussein al-Shaf‘i in 2005, I believe the only surviving Free Officer is Khalid Muhieddin, Zakariyya's younger brother and longtime head of the Tagammu‘ Party. Khalid — once the leftist "Red Major" of the RCC — is, I believe, about 87 now, but still around the last I heard.

But even when the last of the Free Officers leaves the scene, Husni Mubarak, though not a Free Officer, is, as the heir of Anwar Sadat, very much a son of the Revolution. If he passes the baton to his son Gamal — and Mubarak's generation often named sons Gamal after Nasser, which may be the case here as well — the legacy will still continue, even if the freewheeling pro-American capitalism of Gamal Mubarak is a far cry from the "Arab socialism" of Nasser. (An Egyptian joke from the 1970s, when Sadat was liberalizing the economy and turning to the US, was that he kept the Nasser era title for the state prosecutor of "Socialist Prosecutor General" because now the man's primary job was to prosecute socialists.)

The legacy of July 23, 1952 will, I think, be a mixed one. It inaugurated a long era of military rule not only in Egypt but in the Arab world; Nasser's frustrations with his efforts at reform led to an authoritarian legacy that dominates throughout the region still today, and the legacy of the mukhabarat security state is also a contribution of the Nasser era. But it is also hard to look at the Egypt of Black Saturday and feel much nostalgia. What is indisputable is that the coup and the Nasser era shaped not only Egypt but the entire Arab world for decades to come.

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