The Revolution and the Early Years of the New Government: 1952-56

Egypt Table of Contents

The nine men who had constituted themselves as the Committee of the Free Officers' Movement and led the 1952 Revolution were Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, Major Abd al Hakim Amir, Lieutenant Colonel Anwar as Sadat, Major Salah Salim, Major Kamal ad Din Husayn, Wing Commander Gamal Salim, Squadron Leader Hasan Ibrahim, Major Khalid Muhi ad Din, and Wing Commander Abd al Latif al Baghdadi. Major Husayn ash Shafii and Lieutenant Colonel Zakariyya Muhi ad Din joined the committee later.

After the coup, the Free Officers asked Ali Mahir, a previous prime minister, to head the government. The Free Officers formed the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which dictated policy to the civilian cabinet, abolished all civil titles such as pasha and bey, and ordered all political parties to purify their ranks and reconstitute their executive committees.

The RCC elected Muhammad Naguib president and commander in chief. He was chosen because he was a popular hero of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and an officer trusted by the army. In 1951 the Free Officers had elected him as president of the Egyptian Army Officers Club over the candidate chosen by Faruk. It was extremely important for the Free Officers to ensure the loyalty of the army if the coup were to succeed. Naguib was fifty-one years old; the average age of the other Free Officers was thirty- three.

The decision made by the Wafd government after the Anglo- Egyptian Treaty of 1936 to allow sons of nonaristocratic families into the Military Academy had proved an important one for the future of Egypt. It meant that men such as Nasser and Sadat were able to become officers in the army and thus be in a position to shape events in Egypt. The decision had been made, not to create a more egalitarian officer corps, but rather to meet a desperate need for more officers. As it turned out, most members of the Free Officers' group and all of the original members of the RCC had entered the Military Academy during the period between 1937 and 1940. The men who profited from this new policy were not from the poorest families; their families had to have enough money to send their children to secondary schools. For the most part, they were from families of moderately prosperous landholders and minor government officials, who constituted the class of rural notables.

Nasser himself came from a rural notable family. His father was from a small village in Upper Egypt and worked as a postal clerk. In 1915 the senior Nasser moved to Alexandria, where on January 15, 1918, his first son, Gamal, was born. At the age of seven, Gamal was sent to Cairo to live with his uncle and to attend school. He went to a school in Khan al Khalili, the old quarter of the city near Al Azhar Mosque, where he experienced firsthand the bustling, crowded quarters of Cairo and the poverty of many in the city. Between 1933 and 1938, he attended An Nahda (the Awakening) School in Cairo, where he combined studying with demonstrating against British and Egyptian politicians. In November 1935, he marched in demonstrations against the British and was wounded by a bullet fired by British troops. Identified as an agitator by the police, he was asked to leave his school. After a few months in law school, he joined the army.

Nasser desired vehemently to change his country; he believed that the British and the British-controlled king and politicians would continue to harm the interests of the majority of the population. Nasser and the other Free Officers had no particular desire for a military career, but Nasser had perceived that military life offered upward mobility and a chance to participate in shaping the country's future. The Free Officers were united by their desire to see Egypt freed of British control and a more equitable government established. Nasser and many of the others seemed to be attached to no particular political ideology, although some, such as Khalid Muhi ad Din, were Marxists and a few sympathized with the Muslim Brotherhood. The lack of a coherent ideology would cause difficulties in the future when these men set about the task of governing Egypt.

Although Naguib headed the RCC and Mahir the civilian government, Nasser was the real power behind the RCC. The years between 1952 and 1954 witnessed a struggle for control of the government that Nasser ultimately won. The first crisis to face the new government came in August 1952 with a violent strike involving more than 10,000 workers at the Misr Company textile factories at Kafr ad Dawwar in the Delta. Workers attacked and set fire to part of the premises, destroyed machinery, and clashed with the police. The army was called in to put down the strike; several workers lost their lives, and scores were injured. The RCC set up a special military court that tried the arrested textile workers. Two were convicted and executed, and many others were given prison sentences. The regime reacted quickly and ruthlessly because it had no intention of encouraging a popular revolution that it could not control. It then arrested about thirty persons charged with belonging to the outlawed Communist Party of Egypt (CPE). The Democratic Movement for National Liberation, a faction of the CPE, reacted by denouncing the regime as a military dictatorship.

On September 7, Ali Mahir resigned, and Naguib became prime minister, minister of war, commander in chief, and president of the RCC. That same month, the RCC passed its first major domestic measure, the Agrarian Reform Law of 1952. The law was intended to abolish the power of the absentee landlord class, to encourage investment in industry, and to build support for the regime. The law limited landholdings to 200 feddans with the right to transfer another 100 to wives and children. The owners of the land requisitioned by the government received about half the market value of the land at 1951 prices in the form of government bonds. The land was sold in lots of two to five feddans to tenants and small farmers owning less than five feddans. The small farmers had to buy the lots at a price equal to the compensation paid to the former owner.

The RCC also dealt with labor legislation and education. Initial legislation raised minimum wages, reduced working hours, and created more jobs to reduce unemployment. Enforcement of these measures was lax until the early 1960s, however. In another effort to reduce unemployment, the RCC instituted a policy of providing employment in government service for all university graduates, a practice that swelled the ranks of the bureaucracy and left many skilled people underused. The government increased its spending on education with the goal of educating all citizens. Rent control was established, and the government undertook construction of housing for workers. These programs were expanded in the 1960s.

On January 17, 1953, all political parties were dissolved and banned. A three-year transition period was proclaimed during which the RCC would rule. On February 10, the Liberation Rally headed by Nasser was launched to serve as an organization for the mobilization of popular support for the new government. On June 18, Egypt was declared a republic, and the monarchy was abolished, ending the rule of Muhammad Ali's dynasty. Naguib became the first president and also prime minister. Nasser became deputy prime minister and minister of interior. Other officers took over other ministries.

Between 1952 and 1954, there was a struggle between Naguib and Nasser and his colleagues on the RCC for control of the government and over the future form of the government. Naguib was to have one vote on the council and was responsible for carrying out council decisions. He enjoyed considerable popularity, and he developed his own following after conflicts involving policies arose between him and the RCC. The conflicts came to a head on February 23, 1954 when Naguib resigned. The RCC may have been relieved at this decision, but the popular outcry was so great that Naguib was reinstated as president of the republic. Nasser, however, took the position of prime minister, previously held by Naguib, and remained president of the RCC.

As soon as the Free Officers came to power, their immediate and major concern was the evacuation of Britain from Egypt. At first, the Free Officers feared that the British from their garrison in the Suez Canal Zone might try to intervene on behalf of the king. However, the British made it clear that they would not interfere on behalf of the king nor take any action unless British lives were threatened. Achieving the evacuation of the British, however, involved two contentious issues--Sudan and the Suez Canal. Sudan proved to be the easier to resolve. In February 1953, the Egyptian government agreed to a plan for self- determination for Sudan to be implemented over a three-year period. The Sudanese opted for independence rather than union with Egypt.

The issue of the Suez Canal was more complex and linked to Britain's desire to involve Egypt in the West's Cold War with the Soviet Union. As early as September 1952, the British government announced that there was no strategic alternative to the maintenance of the British base in the canal area. In the opinion of Anthony Eden, British foreign secretary, Egypt had to fit into a regional defense system, the Baghdad Pact, and agreement on this point would have to precede any withdrawal from the canal.

This was the period of pacts directed against the Soviet Union. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization were supposed to contain the Soviet Union in the west and east. The Baghdad Pact, bringing into alliance Britain, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq, was supposed to do the same on the Soviet Union's southern borders. The British government was attempting to force Egypt to join the alliance by refusing to discuss evacuation of the Suez Canal base until Egypt agreed.

Egypt, however, would discuss only evacuation and eventual administration of the base, and the British slowly realized the drawbacks of holding the base without Egyptian acquiescence. By October 1954, Nasser signed an agreement providing for the withdrawal of all British troops from the base within twenty months, with the provision that the British base could be reactivated in the event of an attack on Egypt by an outside power or an Arab League state or an attack on Turkey.

The agreement gained a mixed reception among Egyptians. Despite the enthusiasm for ending imperialism, there were those who criticized Nasser for rewriting the old treaty. Nasser's chief critics were the communists and the Brotherhood. It was while Nasser was justifying the canal agreement to a crowd in Alexandria on October 26, 1954 that a member of the Brotherhood attempted to kill him. The following day, in a show of courage, Nasser deliberately exposed himself to crowds in Alexandria, at stations en route to Cairo and in the capital. In Cairo he was met by an estimated 200,000 people, his popularity having been enormously strengthened by this incident.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood had a long history of anti- British and antiregime activities, its leaders stipulated that they would work with the Free Officers only if the officers would agree to Brotherhood objectives. Because the Brotherhood would not refrain from opposing the RCC, Nasser had outlawed the organization in February 1954. Naguib had always had a certain sympathy for the Brotherhood, and its leaders implicated him in the attack on Nasser. It is doubtful that he had any connection with the attack, but it gave Nasser the pretext he needed to remove Naguib from the presidency, and he did so in November.

In February 1955, Eden visited Cairo seeking again to persuade Nasser to join the Baghdad Pact. Nasser again refused. Many Egyptians were skeptical of Britain's intentions and believed that membership in the pact would amount to trading one form of British domination for another. In addition, however, Nasser was increasingly attracted to the Nonaligned Movement that eschewed membership in either the Western or the Soviet camp. Nasser was no particular friend of the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party remained outlawed in Egypt. It was Western imperialism and colonialism, however, that Egypt had been struggling against.

Nasser also had become an admirer and friend of President Marshal Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India. Tito had survived by aligning himself neither with the West nor with the Soviet Union. Together, he and Nasser developed the concept of nonalignment, which entailed avoiding both pro- and anti-Soviet pacts but did not prevent them from purchasing arms or receiving aid from either bloc. Nevertheless, the West, particularly the United States, expected Third World countries to support the West in return for both arms and aid, as Nasser was soon to learn.

A turning point for Nasser was the Conference of the Nonaligned Movement in Bandung, Indonesia in April 1955. There he found himself the center of attention as a Third World leader, accepted as a colleague by Chinese premier Chou En Lai, and greeted by crowds in the streets. Egyptian participation in the conference, along with other former colonies such as India, symbolized not only the new postcolonial world order but also Egypt's own independence.

Another turning point for Nasser came in February 1955 when he became convinced that Egypt had to arm to defend itself against Israel. This decision put him on a collision course with the West that ended on the battlefields of Suez a year later. In February 1955, the Israeli army attacked Egyptian military outposts in Gaza. Thirty-nine Egyptians were killed. Until then, this had been Israel's least troublesome frontier. Since the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Egypt's leaders, from King Faruk to Nasser, had avoided militant attitudes on the ground that Israel should not distract Egypt from domestic problems. Nasser made no serious attempt to narrow Israel's rapidly widening armaments lead. He preferred to spend Egypt's meager hard currency reserves on development.

Israel's raid on Gaza changed Nasser's mind, however. At first he sought Western aid, but he was rebuffed by the United States, France, and Britain. The United States government, especially the passionately anticommunist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, clearly disapproved of Egypt's nonalignment and would make it difficult for Egypt to purchase arms. The French demanded that Egypt cease aiding the Algerian national movement, which was fighting for independence from France. The British warned Nasser that if he accepted Soviet weapons, none would be forthcoming from Britain.

Rejected in this shortsighted way by the West, Nasser negotiated the famous arms agreement with Czechoslovakia in September 1955. This agreement marked the Soviet Union's first great breakthrough in its effort to undermine Western influence in the Middle East. Egypt received no arms from the West and eventually became dependent on arms from the Soviet Union.

Relations between Nasser and the West reached a crisis over plans to finance the Aswan High Dam. Construction of the dam was one of the earliest decisions of the Free Officers. It would increase both electrical generating power and irrigated land area. It would serve industry and agriculture and symbolize the new Egypt. The United States agreed to give Egypt an unconditional loan of US$56 million, and Britain agreed to lend Egypt US$14. The British loan was contingent on the American loan. The World Bank also agreed to lend Egypt an additional US$200 million. The World Bank loan stipulated that Egypt's budget be supervised by World Bank officials. To Nasser these conditions were insulting and were reminiscent of Europe's control over Egypt's finances in the 1870s.

While Nasser admitted to doubts about the West's sincerity, the United States became incensed over Egypt's decision to recognize communist China. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was offering aid to Egypt in several forms, including a loan to finance the Aswan High Dam. Then, on July 19, the United States withdrew its loan offer, and Britain and the World Bank followed suit. Nasser was returning to Cairo from a meeting with President Tito and Prime Minister Nehru when he heard the news. He was furious and decided to retaliate with an action that shocked the West and made him the hero of the Arabs.

On July 26, 1956, the fourth anniversary of King Faruk's exile, Nasser appeared in Muhammad Ali Square in Alexandria where twenty months earlier an assassin had attempted to kill him. An immense crowd gathered, and he began a three-hour speech from a few notes jotted on the back of an envelope. When Nasser said the code word, "de Lesseps," it was the signal for engineer Mahmud Yunis to begin the takeover of the Suez Canal.

The canal's owner was the Suez Canal Company, an international company with headquarters in Paris. Anthony Eden, then British prime minister, called the nationalization of the canal "theft," and United States secretary of state Dulles said Nasser would have to be made to "disgorge" it. The French and British depended heavily on the canal for transporting oil supplies, and they felt that Nasser had become a threat to their remaining interests in the Middle East and Africa. Eden wanted to launch a military action immediately but was informed that Britain was not in a position to do so. Both France and Britain froze Egyptian assets in their countries and increased their military preparedness in the eastern Mediterranean.

Egypt promised to compensate the stockholders of the Suez Canal Company and to guarantee right of access to all ships, so it was difficult for the French and British to rally international support to regain the canal by force. The Soviet Union, its East European allies, and Third World countries generally supported Egypt. The United States moved farther away from Britain and stated that while it opposed the nationalization of the canal, it was against the use of force.

What followed was the invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel, an action known as the Tripartite Invasion or the 1956 War. Whereas the truth about the invasion eventually became known, at the time the Conservative government in London denied that it used Israel as an excuse for attacking Egypt. Eden, who had an intense personal dislike for Nasser, concealed the cooperation with Israel from his colleagues, British diplomats, and the United States.

The plan, which was supposed to enable Britain and France to gain physical control of the canal, called for Israel to attack across the Sinai Desert. When Israel neared the canal, Britain and France would issue an ultimatum for an Egyptian and Israeli withdrawal from both sides of the canal. An Anglo-French force would then occupy the canal to prevent further fighting and to keep it open to shipping. Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to the plan but informed Britain that Israel would not attack unless Britain and France first destroyed the Egyptian air force.

On October 28, Israeli troops crossed the frontier into the Sinai Peninsula (also seen as Sinai), allegedly to destroy the bases of Egyptian commandos. The first sign of collusion between Israel and Britain and France came on the same day when the Anglo-French ultimatum was handed to Egypt and Israel before Israel had even reached the canal. British bombing destroyed the Egyptian air force, and British and French paratroopers were dropped over Port Said and Port Fuad. The Egyptians put up fierce resistance. Ships were sunk in the canal to prevent transit. In the battle for Port Said, about 2,700 Egyptian civilians and soldiers were killed or wounded.

Although it was invaded and occupied for a time, Egypt can claim to have emerged the victor. There was almost universal condemnation of the Tripartite Invasion. The Soviet Union threatened Britain and France with a rocket attack if they did not withdraw. The United States, angered because it had not been informed by its allies of the invasion, realized it could not allow the Soviet Union to appear as the champion of the Third World against Western imperialism. Thus, the United States put pressure on the British and French to withdraw. Faced with almost total opposition to the invasion, the anger of the United States, and the threat of the collapse of the pound sterling, the British agreed to withdraw. Severely condemned, Britain and France accepted a cease-fire on November 6, as their troops were poised to advance the length of the canal. The final evacuation took place on December 22.

Israel, which occupied all of Sinai, was reluctant to withdraw. President Dwight D. Eisenhower of the United States placed great pressure on Israel to give up all its territorial acquisitions and even threatened sanctions. The Israelis did withdraw from Sinai, but they carried out a scorched earth policy, destroying roads, railroads, and military installations as they went.

A United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was established and began arriving in Egypt on November 21. The troops were stationed on the Egyptian side of the Egyptian-Israeli border as well as along the eastern coast of Sinai. Israel refused to allow UN troops on its territory. The UN troops were stationed on the Gulf of Aqaba to ensure the free passage of Israeli shipping to Elat. The troops remained in Egypt until 1967, when their removal contributed to the outbreak of the June 1967 War.

Egypt reopened the canal to shipping in April and ran it smoothly. It was open to all ships except those of Israel, and it remained open until the June 1967 War (Arab-Israeli war, also known as the Six-Day War). Diplomatic relations between Egypt and Britain were not restored until 1969.

Nasser had won a significant victory. The immediate effect was that Britain and France were finally out of Egypt. Nasser went on to nationalize all other British and French assets in Egypt. The Egyptians now had full control of the canal and its revenues. The Suez crisis also made Nasser the hero of the Arab world, a man who had stood up to Western imperialism and had prevailed.

In response to his increased prestige, Nasser emphasized the Arab character of Egypt and its leadership role in the Arab world. He had always had a concern for Arab causes, as shown by his volunteering to fight in Palestine in 1948, but now this tendency was amplified. His Egyptian nationalism became Arab nationalism when he decided that if the Arab countries worked together, they would have the resources to solve their individual problems. In addition, the move toward nationalization, which started with French and British assets, continued in Egypt and became a cornerstone of Nasser's administration.

Another result of the 1956 events was the increased Soviet influence in Egypt stemming from the Soviet financing of the Aswan High Dam construction and Soviet arms sales to Egypt. Thus, Egypt became the cornerstone of the Soviet Union's Middle East policy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress