A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 23, 2010

For July 23: Remembering Egypt's First President

Does anyone immediately recognize (if you haven't read the title) the elderly gentleman at the right, photographed in his last year of life, aged 83? (Scanned from the memoir published in the year he died; hence the page crease.) The year was 1984, and aspects of his life were indeed Orwellian: for decades he was an "unperson."

Today is July 23, the anniversary of Egypt's 1952 Revolution, and Egypt's National Day. One of the difficulties with being in my second year of blogging is that when a major date comes along like today, I have to think of something different from what I did last year, when I reflected on the 1952 Revolution, since all I have to do is hot link to that for you to reread my thoughts, and have just done so. So for this year's July 23 post, let's remember the Revolution's nearly forgotten man, Egypt's first President.

Line 1 of the Cairo Metro, the first one to open, has stations named Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. It wasn't until Line 2 came along that Egypt's first President, Muhammad Naguib, got his station, shown at left. Naguib tends to be the forgotten President, in part at least because he endured that Orwellian "unperson" status for most of the 1950s and 1960s, and really only re-emerged in public awareness in the last years of his life, between Sadat's death in 1981 and Naguib's own in 1984.

In the early days of the Revolution, however, Naguib was the visible face, as seen by his appearance on the cover of Time — in that era, the sign that a foreign ruler had made it into the big leagues, like the cover of Rolling Stone would later be for musicians — for September 8, 1952 (below right). And the cover story, entitled "Egypt: A Good Man" showed that Time, at least, liked him far better than it would ever like Nasser:
Naguib is a "strong man"—but he neither looks nor acts the part. He lives in a modest suburban house with his wife and three young sons, earns $4,000 a year, smokes cheap Toscani tobacco and drives a tiny German Opel on which he still owes three or four payments. Quiet and self-effacing, a better listener than he is a talker, he exudes an old-fashioned courtesy that echoes the prose of the Koran. How did this mild-mannered man lead a revolution in a land where corruption, disease, glaring wealth and bitter poverty are as old and as familiar as the Pyramids?
"Old fashioned courtesy that echoes the prose of the Koran?" "As old and familiar as the Pyramids." Ah, Time in Henry Luce's day certainly had its recognizable style.

Gamal Abdel Nasser was in the wings all along, but Naguib certainly thought he was more than a figurehead in his years in power.

He had become something of a celebrity in Egypt during the Palestine War/War of Israeli Independence in 1948 when he (and his subordinate Gamal Abdel Nasser) were cut off by Israelis in the "Falluja Pocket" but avoided surrendering, the only slightly bright spot in an otherwise dismal performance by the Egyptian Army.

Since Naguib's fellow Free Officers ended up writing most of the history, he is usually portrayed as having been chosen as a figurehead, with Nasser holding the real reins of the Revolution from the beginning. But Nasser and the other Free Officers were young majors and colonels, and Naguib a well-known Major General and critic of the King's Men in the military. Naguib led the Free Officers to victory in elections to the Army Officers' Club in early 1952, provoking the King to cancel the results and the Free Officers to move up their coup, which they had planned for several years later.

So Naguib became the visible face of the Revolution. Here is his first broadcast (Arabic):

Naguib became the head of the new Revolution Command Council (RCC) but did not officially take a political office at first; former Prime Minister Ali Maher was named Prime Minister. The Free Officers became frustrated with Maher and in September Naguib made himself Prime Minister. (Egypt was still, as most people forget, a monarchy; Farouq had abdicated in favor of his son Ahmad Fuad II, an infant who was in exile but theoretically reigned through a regency council. Egypt's last King is still alive, as I noted last year complete with pictures.)

Naguib remained Prime Minister and then, on June 18, 1953, proclaimed Egypt a republic (with himself as President and Prime Minister and Nasser as Deputy Prime Minister); he remained the most visible figure. But increasingly, one notices Nasser in the photos (in the picture below right, Naguib talks to Nasser and Salah Salem). (Don't Nasser's eyes look dominating?) Still, in the surviving clips from the era, Naguib seems the mature, pipe-smoking, avuncular leader (left).

Increasingly, though, the ambitious Nasser, who had been the real creator of the Free Officers (except in some of Anwar Sadat's late rewritings of his memoirs, when he tried to take credit) began accumulating the real authority, in lieu of Naguib. Finally, in February 1954 the rivalry between Naguib and Nasser became open; the Free Officers sought to replace Naguib but he regained power, though Nasser was given the title of Prime Minister and increasingly made all the decisions. Naguib failed to regain real authority and finally in November 1954 he resigned the Presidency as well.

Nasser confined Naguib to a comfortable villa but under close house arrest; as the narratives of the Revolution emerged, he was portrayed more and more as a figurehead from the beginning, though it seems clear he did not understand things that way.

Muhammad Naguib began his decades of unperson-hood, sequestered in his villa. Anwar Sadat eased the house arrest but he remained out of public view. After Sadat's 1981 assassination, with most of the original Free Officers now out of government, Naguib was allowed to emerge from obscurity, give interviews, and write his memoirs. When he died in 1984 he was given a military funeral and Husni Mubarak attended. Such items as the naming of a Metro station for him (as an afterthought after Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak stations, however, and Sadat and Mubarak are major hubs while his is a local stop) indicate that nearly 60 years after that Time cover, Egypt has finally rehabilitated its first President, even if he is still largely forgotten in a country where much of the population has grown to adulthood under a single President, Husni Mubarak, who seems to be immortal. (The Presidencies of Naguib, Nasser, and Sadat combined, 1953-1981, total about one year less than Mubarak's rule — thus far.)

Finally, a tribute on YouTube to "The First President and the First Victim." The soundtrack is Arabic music but you don't need to understand Arabic as it's just a stream of still photos.

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