Today in Middle East history: Egypt’s 23 July Revolution (1952)

Today marks 63 years since one of the most important events in 20th century Middle East history, the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy by the Free Officers Movement. This was a group of military officers ostensibly led by General Muhammad Naguib, but really led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was gracious enough to let Naguib have a short turn as Egypt’s president from 1953-1954 before pushing him out and officially taking power.

Nasser (right) and Naguib in July 1954; Nasser would have Naguib’s job by November (Wikimedia)

The proximate cause of the coup that ousted King Farouk was the drubbing that Egypt, along with every other Arab state, had received at the hands of the Israelis during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The officers blamed Egypt’s corrupt monarchy, which was totally under British control anyway, for the defeat (when the 1967 Six Day War rolled around, and Israel throttled the Egyptian army again, you can imagine that this was kind of an embarrassment for Nasser), and, in a rare bit of Cold War collaboration, their feelings were encouraged by both the US and USSR, who didn’t much care for the fact that Britain had so much control over the Suez Canal. They organized protests against and attacks on the government, while building support for a coup to replace Farouk. They began the coup on July 22, after Naguib found out that Farouk knew who the Free Officers were and that he was planning on arresting the lot of them. That evening was spent consolidating their support, including crucially the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders had been approached by Nasser himself and agreed it was time for the king to go.

On the morning of July 23, future Egyptian President (but then a mere lieutenant colonel) Anwar Sadat read a statement over Egyptian airwaves declaring the revolution. Nasser and his men had already arrested several key royalists and essentially taken control of Cairo, so Farouk was left with no choice but to abdicate in favor of his son, who became Fuad II but clearly had no mandate to rule apart from what the Free Officers allowed him to have. His reign didn’t even last a year, until June 1953, when the Free Officers (whose leadership committee was now calling itself the Revolution Command Council) opted to do away with the monarchy and transform Egypt into a republic.

This decision immediately sent the formerly on-board Muslim Brotherhood into the streets, protesting the very secular nature of the new republican government. They were quickly outlawed and would remain so until the 2011 Tahrir Square movement ousted Hosni Mubarak, though of course they’re now outlawed again, and really you could argue that Egypt is back to being the same military dictatorship-lite that it was under Nasser and his two successors, Sadat and Mubarak. The more things change, you know.

Nasserism, the blend of socialism, nationalism, anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, and republicanism that was Egypt’s governing ethos under Nasser and his successors, was one of the most influential intellectual movements to sweep through the Middle East in the 20th century. Paradoxically, Nasserism is anti-Communist (his “Arab socialism” was explicitly meant as a counter to communism), but Egypt under Nasser and Sadat because heavily dependent on Soviet aid as its relations with the US and UK deteriorated. Nasserist movements developed elsewhere in the region, especially in Lebanon and Syria (which entered a brief political union with Egypt under Nasser from 1958 to 1961), and influenced the Baʿath Party in Syria and Iraq.

Nasser also supported leftist movements outside the Arab world, like Castro’s 26th of July Movement and the African National Congress, and under his rule Egypt was one of the core members of the Non-Aligned Movement, alongside India, Indonesia, and several other nations (this all helps to explain why Egypt’s relationship with the US deteriorated). So apart from its massive impact on Egyptian history (though Sadat and definitely Mubarak mostly abandoned Nasserism’s intellectual tenets), the 23 July Revolution had a pretty major impact on affairs in the Arab world and beyond.

If you’re interested in reading more about the revolution, I’ll steer you to Michael Collins Dunn, the Editor of the Middle East Journal and somebody to whom I often link, especially when I’m talking about modern Egyptian history. He’s written several blog pieces on the 23 July Revolution, its legacy, and the role of the Egyptian army in the coup. Yesterday he wrote a lighter piece on Sadat’s whereabouts on the night of July 22, when he supposedly almost missed participating in the coup because he was at the theater:

Anwar Sadat’s memoirs (or at least some of them; he retold his life several times), those of his wife Jehan, and most other standard accounts of the coup agree on one thing: Anwar Sadat, later Egypt’s third President, nearly missed the coup because he was at the movies when his co-conspirators were trying to locate him. I am not the first person to wonder: what movie or movies were they watching, and at what theater? (Let me warn you now: at the end of this post, neither one of us will know the answer for certain.)

I can’t answer the question, because Sadat, the old revolutionary and underground conspirator, never told us more than he wanted us to know, and he often told different stories, In the summer of 1981 on his last visit to Washington before his assassination, US media reported (I don’t have the citation at hand but remember the event) that Sadat reportedly told President Ronald Reagan that he’d been attending one of Reagan’s movies. I thought then and think now that Sadat, who had been lionized in the US media for the peace with Israel and was probably more popular in Washington than Cairo, was flattering Reagan and again rewriting his autobiography, though I suppose I could be wrong. Anyone with access to Egyptian newspaper files from 1952 who can check the cinema listings for July 22 might be able to confirm if any Reagan movies were playing that night.

It’s an interesting historical mystery and worth reading.

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