This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the 23 July 1952 revolution led by the Free Officers Movement, which secured Egypt’s independence from British colonial rule, ended the monarchy of King Farouk and installed the first native regime to rule the country for two thousand years. Today, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s family commemorates the first anniversary of the revolution to take place after the death of his eldest son Khaled Gamal Abdel-Nasser in September 2011.
For many of the generation who were born and grew up in post-Nasser Egypt, the revolution was a symbol of nationalism, independence, Third World national liberation and pan-Arabism. They grew up on the aspirations and dreams of the revolution that bore no semblance to a reality they lived – Infitah, the 1979 Camp David Accords and Egypt’s alienation from the Arab world, increased privatisation, growing poverty, and complacency toward the Palestinian cause under Mubarak’s rule.
While the revolution forever changed Egypt into the major Arab and Third World country, it suffered decline during the Mubarak years. For those who have read archival material chronicling the revolution – memoirs, public speeches, and interviews, among other documents – the revolution was incontestably an emblem of national liberation. In Egypt – primarily in the generation that grew up on land reforms and free education – Tunisia, Lebanon, and other Arab countries, I learned about Arab dreams and the inspiration of the revolution.
In Nasser’s Memoirs of the First Palestine War, a young Nasser portrayed his experience in the tragedy of the Palestine War in 1948, which defined the revolutionary ideals of the Free Officers. The memoirs reflect not only the Free Officers’ Movement but also a staff officer’s dreams of freedom for Egypt and Palestine.
Nasser’s departure from Cairo to join the 6th Battalion stationed in Rafah on 16 May 1948 followed the proclamation of the State of Israel with the end of the British Mandate on 15 May. During his dispatch to Palestine, Nasser observed the troops’ high morale at the outset, the lack of provisions and weapons, heavy casualties, his growing frustration at the ineffectual leadership, the poor organisation of the monarchy’s army, and corruption. He met many of the Free Officers in the trenches during the Palestine War.
Three years later, he would lead a bloodless coup against an Ottoman monarchy and more than a century of British rule. Although the memoirs revisit the 1948 war, they were written in 1955 during the Israeli military campaign against the Gaza Strip on 28 February 1955, which reveals the enduring centrality of Palestine and pan-Arab nationalism to the revolution.
For a generation that experienced the disillusionment of the Mubarak years, the 2011 uprising brought renewed yearning for the 1952 revolution’s commitment to social justice and equality. It also reflected its pan-Arab dreams, which was expressed in the spread of revolutions from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. The flow of revolutions and solidarity seemed to reflect the Arab world that the 1952 revolution had imagined and sought.
Today, the ideals of the 1952 revolution are immortalized in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world through the dreams and aspirations of the twenty-first century Arab revolutions. During the 2011 uprising, revolutionary groups held aloft portraits of Nasser in Tahrir Square. In Egypt, the revolutionary movement shared the dreams of social justice of the 1952 revolution and sought to end corruption. The 2011 uprising revived the hopes and commitment of the 1952 revolution for social justice and liberation.
Tahia Abdel Nasser is assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, she is the granddaughter of President Nasser, daughter to his oldest son, the late Khaled Abdel Nasser.