Book review: Egypt-Sudan relations during the 1950s as told by Salah Salem

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 11 Nov 2013

Salah Salem, a member of the Free Officers movement that led the 1952 Revolution and ended British occupation in Egypt, recalls stories of his time as minister for Sudanese affairs

Salah Salem
Salah Salem

Muzzakarat Al-Sagh Salah Salem ('Memoirs of Major Salah Salem') by Salah Salem, edited by Abdel-Aziz Eissa, Cairo: Autobiographies Series - General Egyptian Book Organization, 2013. pp.328

Not much is left of Salah Salem except the name of the boulevard that cuts through Cairo, changed to carry his name immediately after his death in the 1960s. The man responsible for the Egyptian-Sudanese relations during the critical period following the 1952 coup is remembered by few, including the editor of his memoirs, Abdel-Aziz Eissa.

Eissa's collation of Salem's memoirs serves to fill in many of the gaps regarding the relation of Egypt with Sudan during the 1950s, and sheds light on Salem's role as minister of state for Sudanese affairs during this crucial period.

Salem's memoirs evoke a sense of surprise at such negligence towards Egypt's near history. It is almost impossible to believe that Salah Salem wrote and published in a daily newspaper at the time, but nobody cared enough to compile, edit and reproduce his experiences until six decades later.

Salem was born in 1920 in Sudan, where his father worked. He graduated from the Royal Military Academy in 1928, met Gamal Abd-El-Nasser in the Faluja siege during the 1948 War, and joined the Free Officers Movement that led Egypt's 1952 Revolution-coup.

Salem was a member of the executive committee of the movement, before becoming a member of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) after the success of the coup.

He was appointed in key posts, such as Minister of National Guidance, and Minister of State for Sudanese Affairs.

Salem also had a neurotic character that was prone to violence and full of contradictions.

Such contradictions include his assertions that fighting must cease instantly after the Tripartite Aggression in 1956 and that Nasser should surrender to the British as a means of ending the war. He also called for reconciliation with Israel in 1954.

Salem also allegedly assisted Princess Fawziya in smuggling her fortune out of Egypt after the 1952 coup, when her brother King Farouk was forced into exile. According to Salah Eissa's book, 'The Princess and The Effendi,' strong rumours circulated that Salem was having an affair with the princess.

When the RCC appointed Salem Minister of State for Sudanese Affairs – which is the topic of this memoir – he was a total failure. Consequently, he resigned from all of his posts, moved to the press and became the head of the board of Al-Shaab newspaper, the mouthpiece of the new rulers. In 1960, he died after a struggle with cancer at 41 years of age. 

This particular memoir was devoted solely to the role he played in handling the Sudanese dossier, which Salem was delegated responsibility for without adequate knowledge of Sudanese affairs. There was a shared ignorance in such matters among all the RCC members, with the possible exception of Mohammed Naguib, the first President of Egypt, whose mother was Sudanese. Such lack of knowledge is more shocking given that Egypt and Sudan were officially one state under British colonial occupation at the time.

Successive Egyptian governments refused attempts by occupying forces to conduct a referendum for self-determination in Sudan. For example, Fouad Pasha Siraj El-Din, who was Minister of the Interior in the Wafd government, replied that such action was impossible, as Sudan comprised an inseparable part of Egypt, as referred to in the slogan, "Unity of the Nile Valley."

This situation remained intact until the 1952 Revolution, when the Sudanese issue came to the fore amid the withdrawal of British troops. Encumbered with their new responsibilities for civil governance, the officers passed the buck to Salah Salem on Sudan.

He failed miserably and Egypt abandoned its belief in Sudan as an integral part of its national security.

For instance, Salem went to the tribal south of Sudan and undressed, except for a loincloth, in order to imitate Africans. He danced with tribal members, wearing his famous black sunglasses, an affair which was recorded and published in newspapers. Salem thought he could earn the friendship of the Sudanese with such behaviour, while the Sudanese required someone who took his responsibilities regarding their independence a little more seriously.

Abdel-Aziz Eissa, editor of the memoirs, asserts that there were many mistakes in the secession of Sudan from Egypt, which he blames both Salah Salem and the RCC for, particularly in the light of raging conflict within the RCC itself and the deposing of Mohammed Naguib from the presidency in 1954.

Eissa draws attention to the fact that Al-Shaab newspaper published the memoirs daily from 4 June until 6 July, 1956, and  then suddenly stopped after the 30th episode, despite promises from Salem that he would reveal secrets regarding his resignation from the Ministry of National Guidance. There's little doubt that the memoir was halted due to the interference of the new regime. The secrets and undisclosed information on the RCC that Salem promised to expose therefore remained hidden.

Such 'secrets' include Salem's attempt to gain the support of the Sudanese Communist party for the Egyptian Revolution through a deal to release a number of Egyptian communists. However, before this could take place, Salem's resignation was reported and the story, as well as details concerning the whereabouts of the detained communists, were lost.

Salem's memoirs help bridge some of the gaps in our historical knowledge of the 1950s, yet also leaves out a lot that will likely remain untold more than six decades later.

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