On the Threshold of Revolution, 1945-52

Egypt Table of Contents

In 1945 a Labour Party government with anti-imperialist leanings was elected in Britain. This election encouraged Egyptians to believe that Britain would change its policy. The end of the war in Europe and the Pacific, however, saw the beginning of a new kind of global war, the Cold War, in which Egypt found itself embroiled against its will. Concerned by the possibility of expansion by the Soviet Union, the West would come to see the Middle East as a vital element in its postwar strategy of "containment." In addition, pro-imperialist British Conservatives like Winston Churchill spoke of Britain's "rightful position" in the Suez Canal Zone. He and Anthony Eden, the Conservative Party spokesman on foreign affairs, stressed the vital importance of the Suez Canal as an imperial lifeline and claimed international security would be threatened by British withdrawal.

In December 1945, Egyptian prime minister Mahmud Nuqrashi, sent a note to the British demanding that they renegotiate the 1936 treaty and evacuate British troops from the country. Britain refused. Riots and demonstrations by students and workers broke out in Cairo and Alexandria, accompanied by attacks on British property and personnel.

The new Egyptian prime minister, Ismail Sidqi, a driving force behind Egyptian politics in the 1930s and now seventy-one and in poor health, took over negotiations with the British. The British Labour Party prime minister, Clement Atlee, agreed to remove British troops from Egyptian cities and bases by September 1949. The British had withdrawn their troops to the Suez Canal Zone when negotiations foundered over the issue of Sudan. Britain said Sudan was ready for self-government while Egyptian nationalists were proclaiming "the unity of the Nile Valley," that is, that Sudan should be part of Egypt. Sidqi resigned in December 1946 and was succeeded by Nuqrashi, who referred the question of Sudan to the newly created United Nations (UN) during the following year. The Brotherhood called for strikes and a jihad (holy war) against the British, and newspapers called for a guerrilla war.

In 1948 another event strengthened the Egyptian desire to rid the country of imperial domination. This event was the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel by David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv. The Egyptians, like most Arabs, considered the State of Israel a creation of Western, specifically British, imperialism and an alien entity in the Arab homeland. In September 1947, the League of Arab States (Arab League) had decided to resist by force the UN plan for partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Thus, when Israel announced its independence in 1948, the armies of the various Arab states, including Egypt, entered Palestine to save the country for the Arabs against what they considered Zionist aggression. The Arabs were defeated by Israel, although the Arab Legion of Transjordan held onto the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Egypt saved a strip of territory around Gaza that became known as the Gaza Strip.

When the war began, the Egyptian army was poorly prepared and had no plan for coordination with the other Arab states. Although there were individual heroic acts of resistance, the army did not perform well, and nothing could disguise the defeat or mitigate the intense feeling of shame. After the war, there were scandals over the inferior equipment issued to the military, and the king and government were blamed for treacherously abandoning the army. One of the men who served in the war was Gamal Abdul Nasser, who commanded an army unit in Palestine and was wounded in the chest. Nasser was dismayed by the inefficiency and lack of preparation of the army. In the battle for the Negev Desert in October 1948, Nasser and his unit were trapped at Falluja, near Beersheba. The unit held out and was eventually able to counterattack. This event assumed great importance for Nasser, who saw it as a symbol of his country's determination to free Egypt from all forms of oppression, internal and external.

Nasser organized a clandestine group inside the army called the Free Officers. After the war against Israel, the Free Officers began to plan for a revolutionary overthrow of the government. In 1949 nine of the Free Officers formed the Committee of the Free Officers' Movement; in 1950 Nasser was elected chairman.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose volunteer squads had fought well against Israel, gained in popularity and membership. Before the war, the Brotherhood was responsible for numerous attacks on British personnel and property. With the outbreak of the war against Israel, martial law was declared in Egypt, and the Brotherhood was ordered to dissolve. In retaliation, a member of the Brotherhood murdered Nuqrashi, the prime minister. His successor, Ibrahim Abdul Hadi, detained in concentration camps thousands of Brotherhood members as well as members of Young Egypt and communists. In February 1949, Brotherhood founder Hassan al Banna was assassinated, probably by agents of the security branch of the government.

In January 1950, the Wafd returned to power with Nahhas as prime minister. In October 1951, Nahhas introduced, and Parliament approved, decrees abrogating unilaterally the AngloEgyptian Treaty of 1936 and proclaiming Faruk king of Egypt and Sudan. Egypt exulted, with newspapers proclaiming that Egypt had broken "the fetters of British imperialism." The Wafd government gave way to pressure from the Brotherhood and leftist groups for militant opposition to the British. "Liberation battalions" were formed, and the Brotherhood and auxiliary police were armed. Food supplies to the Suez Canal Zone were blocked, and Egyptian workers were withdrawn from the base. A guerrilla war against the British in the Suez Canal Zone was undertaken by students and the Brotherhood.

In December British bulldozers and Centurion tanks demolished fifty Egyptian mud houses to open a road to a water supply for the British army. This incident and one that followed on January 25 provoked intense Egyptian anger. On January 25, 1952, the British attacked an Egyptian police barracks at Ismailiya (Al Ismailiyah) when its occupants refused to surrender to British troops. Fifty Egyptians were killed and 100 wounded.

The January incident led directly to "Black Saturday," January 26, 1952, which began with a mutiny by police in Cairo in protest against the death of their colleagues. Concurrently, groups of people in Cairo went on a rampage. British property and other symbols of the Western presence were attacked. By the end of the day, 750 establishments valued at 50 million had been burned or destroyed. Thirty persons were killed, including eleven British and other foreigners; hundreds were injured.

The British believed there was official connivance in the rioting. Wafdist interior minister Fuad Siraj ad Din (also seen as Serag al Din) was accused of negligence by an Egyptian government report and dismissed. The king dismissed Nahhas, and four prime ministers held office in the next six months. It became clear that the Egyptian ruling class had become unable to rule, and none of the radical nationalist groups was strong enough to take power. This power vacuum gave the Free Officers their opportunity.

On July 22, the Free Officers realized that the king might be preparing to move against them. They decided to strike and seize power the next morning. On July 26, King Faruk, forced to abdicate in favor of his infant son, sailed into exile on the same yacht on which his grandfather, Ismail, had left for exile about seventy years earlier.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress