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Archive for July 2012

July 23’s forgotten man

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As the newspapers of yesterday were filled with photos of Gamal Abdel Nasser and articles commemorating his July 23 coup or revolution, depending on your political inclinations, one man was again absent from the yearly love fest: General Mohamed Naguib, Egypt’s first president and the leader of the 1952 movement.

In 1949, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, then a mid-level military officer and founder of the Free Officer’s Movement, invited Naguib to join and lead the group. The reason Nasser would give up power, if only seemingly, was that at the time all the movement’s members, including Nasser himself, were young low ranking officers in their mid thirties. They needed an older, more recognised name to act as leader.

Naguib was the perfect man for the job; he had been one of the very few military men seen as heroes in the aftermath of the 1948 war, was known inside the military for being a polite, pious, as well as cultured an educated man (Naguib had a law degree in addition to his military education and training), his stance against King Farouk, and was generally very respected within the military.

Following the Arab defeat in the 1948 war Naguib became even more disillusioned with the monarchy and the top military brass and political elites whose corruption he blamed for the defeat.

He had previously submitted his resignation twice to King Farouk, once after February 4, 1942 standoff at Abdeen Palace were British tanks surrounded the royal palace and the British forced the king to appoint the Wafd Party’s Moustafa El-Nahas as prime minister and ask him to form a Wafd cabinet. Naguib felt humiliated at the extent of British intervention in Egyptian affairs and wrote to the king saying that “since the army was not called upon to defend Your Majesty, I am ashamed to wear this uniform and ask your permission to resign.” Farouk denied his request.

Naguib tried to resign again in 1951 after Farouk appointed Hussein Serri Amer, who had a reputation of corruption, as Coast Guard chief instead of Naguib after he refused to promote him at the king’s request. Farouk again refused his resignation and Naguib elected to stay within the military in order to help and protect the Free Officers.

On January 6, 1952 Naguib, backed by the Free Officers, was elected as head of the Officer’s Club, defeating Hussein Serri Amer who was nominated by the king. This was unprecedented as the king’s nominees always won the post and in response Farouk dissolved the club’s executive board.

Farouk’s move, and the Cairo Fires of January 26, as well as the fact that the government was close to arresting the Free Officers after discovering their names and plans, led to Nasser changing his plan to launch the coup in 1955 and bringing it forward to July 23, 1952.

Naguib was immediately declared Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in order to keep the military loyal and under control and the Free Officers formed the Revolutionary Command Council with Naguib as chairman and Nasser as vice chairman.

They appointed Ali Maher Pasha as prime minister, tasking him with forming a cabinet and forced King Farouk to abdicate in favour of his infant son Ahmed Fouad who became King Fouad II. Farouk was then exiled.

Maher disagreed with the RCC over several policies, most notably land reform, and resigned three months later. In September 1952 the RCC appointed Naguib as prime minister and member of Fouad’s regency council. Nasser became deputy prime minister and minister of interior, preferring to work in the background at the time.

Almost a year after the officer’s coup, the RCC abolished the monarchy and declared Egypt a republic in September 1953 and Naguib was proclaimed president alongside his roles as prime minister, RCC chairman and commander-in-chief, effectively making him Egypt’s strongman leading a government composed of mostly military men. Only as a figurehead, however, as the days would soon prove.

It was at this point that Naguib began to clash with the other RCC members, led by Nasser, over the revolution’s goals and how to implement them. Naguib felt that the best course of action would be for the military to withdraw from political life and allow free parliamentary elections and the return of political parties. Nasser felt that the parties were all corrupt and had been complicit with the monarchy in causing Egypt’s deterioration.

Nasser wanted the military to rule, feeling that civilian rule would lead to groups like Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood gaining back power. Naguib in contrast envisioned an Ataturk-style military that remained out of public life but had the obligation to interfere and overthrow a corrupt regime when needed.

“At the age of 36, Abdel-Nasser felt that we could ignore Egyptian public opinion until we had reached our goals, but with the caution of a 53-year-old, I believed that we needed grassroots support for our policies, even if it meant postponing some of our goals. I differed with the younger officers on the means by which to reach our goals, never on the principles,” Naguib later wrote in his book I Was President of Egypt.

Naguib also resented the fact that he was responsible for decisions he did not make. As president and RCC chairman Naguib would sign off on decisions taken against his will as he would regularly be out-voted in RCC meetings, with the RCC being the real decision maker.

On February 22, 1953 Naguib submitted his resignation to the RCC. On the 25th they released a statement saying they removed him from his position because he asked for dictatorial powers and Nasser accused him of being a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer involved in a plot to overthrow the RCC. Nasser took over as prime minister and RCC chairman with the presidency remaining vacant. Major Abdel Hakim Amer had earlier been promoted from Major to General and entrusted with the position of commander-in-chief.

The next day mass protests broke out against the decision, calling for Naguib to be reinstated. The RCC had no choice and issued a statement reappointing Naguib as president. Without any of his other previous positions, however, Naguib would become even more of a figurehead with the title of president being largely ceremonial.

Naguib’s final stand would come one month later in what is now known as the March 1954 Crisis. As soon as he reassumed the presidency, Naguib called for a meeting of the Constituent Assembly on March 5 and tasked it with drafting a new democratic constitution as soon as possible. He then met with the RCC on March 25 and after getting its approval issued a decree saying that political parties would now be allowed again, the RCC would be barred from creating a party, the Constituent Assembly would be directly elected and would elect a president after on its first meeting and the RCC would dissolve itself on July 24, proclaiming the revolution officially over and handing over power to elected civilians.

However, on March 28 massive protests broke out in front of parliament, the presidential palace and the State Council against democracy and political parties chanting “no to parliament or parties” and “down with democracy and freedom.” One of the main organisers of the protests, transport union head Sawy Ahmed Sawy, later admitted receiving EGP 4,000 from Nasser in return for staging the protests. The RCC responded by cancelling Naguib’s decisions who responded by submitting his resignation only for Nasser to reject it, fearing similar protests as the February ones.

On November 14, 1954, Mohamed Naguib headed from his house to the presidential office only to notice that the military police were not giving him a military salute.  As he walked out of his car and headed towards the building, he was met with three officers and 10 soldiers carrying rifles. He yelled at them telling them their actions would cause a battle with the republican guard. Two military policemen followed him up the stairs and when he enquired they said they had permission from the head of the presidential guard.

Naguib called Nasser and informed him of the situation and Nasser said he would send Amer, the military’s commander-in-chief, to deal with the situation. Amer arrived shortly and informed Naguib that the RCC has decided to remove him as president. Naguib answered that he did not want to resign as to not be responsible for civil strife but if he was being removed then he had no problem with it.

Amer told Naguib he would be placed under house arrest in Zeinab Al-Wakeel’s (El-Nahas’s wife) villa for a few days. Naguib spent the next 30 years in the villa, the first 17 as a prisoner. He was only released in 1974 by then-President Anwar El-Sadat and died in 1984. His name would not be mentioned in school history books before the late 1990s. He suffered mistreatment and insult in his solitary prison where he wrote his book I Was President of Egypt.

“I wish I had not returned [to public life],” Naguib wrote. “Everyone was in a state of bitterness because of defeat and occupation. All they talked of was pain and lack of hope at expelling the Israeli occupation. In addition to that there were the victims of the revolution, those who were just released from prisons and suffered torture. And even those who were not imprisoned felt fear and humiliation. I then realised how much of a crime the revolution committed against the Egyptian citizen, who lost his freedom, dignity, land, his troubles doubled, sanitation was a mess, water was scarce, morals decayed, and the people were lost.”

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Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

July 23, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Posted in Egypt