Millions of Egyptians awoke on Wednesday 23 July 1952 to hear the news over the radio – there was no TV in Egypt back then – that the army in a “blessed movement” had seized power in the country.
The intervention of the military in politics had come after a very turbulent period in modern Egyptian history immediately after the end of World War II that had included widespread demonstrations by students and workers against deteriorating living conditions, the Palestine War of 1948, the political instability of a regime that had started to lose control over events, and the inability of the palace and the governing elites to negotiate the end of the British occupation of Egypt dating back to 1882.
There was a fierce confrontation between Egypt’s leftists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was scheming to seize power at the earliest possible opportunity through an ad-hoc alliance with the powers that be in order to change the status quo.
The majority parliamentary party, the Wafd, came to power in 1950 amidst rising national fervour against the British occupying forces. Under enormous political, economic, and social pressure, the Wafd government repealed the 1936 Treaty with the British, an act that triggered an armed resistance movement against British forces in the Suez Canal Zone where the largest British military base in the Middle East was located.
On 25 January 1952, the Egyptian police in Ismailia rejected a British ultimatum to lay down their arms. A bloody battle ensued in which dozens of Egyptian policemen lost their lives. On the following day, 26 January, Cairo burned for more than ten hours until the army belatedly intervened to regain control. Some 700 people died, and many Western institutions were ransacked and destroyed.
Many years later, I had the opportunity to discuss these events with Fouad Serageldin, the minister of the interior in the Wafd government at the time, who was a very influential politician and had occupied the post of the party’s secretary-general. I asked him who was responsible for setting Cairo ablaze. I still remember his reply that the responsible parties were the palace, the British, and the Muslim Brothers. The former two had done so in order to get rid of the Wafd government, he said, while the Muslim Brothers wanted to create chaos as a prelude to seizing power.
On the morning after the blaze, then King Farouk dissolved the 1950 parliament and appointed a new government. By July that year, Egypt had had three governments. The time for radical political, economic and social changes was long overdue.
In the two-year period from July 1952 to October 1954 the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) that took power on 23 July changed the course of Egyptian history. First, it enacted the agrarian reform law of 9 September 1952 limiting the amount of land that could be owned by individuals to 200 feddans and redistributing the rest to the peasantry. Second, it adopted a republican system of government in Egypt on 18 June 1953. Third, it signed a withdrawal agreement with the British in October 1954.
The leaders of the revolution wanted at first to concentrate their energies and the limited resources of the country on internal reform, with special attention being paid to developing and improving industrial production, public health, and education. They also wanted to modernise the Egyptian military through cooperation with the US.
The Americans were not very enthusiastic and promised rifles and machine guns. But that was not what the members of the RCC were thinking of. They wanted a modern army that could defend the country when some Western powers, France, for example, were providing Israel with modern tanks and fighter planes.
The parting of the ways between Egypt and the West came on 28 February 1955. At dawn on that day, an Israeli commando unit led by a then obscure major by the name of Ariel Sharon raided an Egyptian military outpost in Al-Arish killing almost 60 soldiers.
This was a turning point for the young revolutionary leaders led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The former Soviet Union entered the Middle East through Chinese mediation and agreed to provide Egypt with the weapons it needed. At the same time, Egypt launched the Non-Aligned Movement with the former Yugoslavia, India, Indonesia, China, and other developing countries at Bandung in Indonesia in April 1955. Cairo also recognised the People’s Republic of China, a decision that angered then US president Dwight Eisenhower.
Two major regional and international issues proved challenging for the revolution, namely Israel and the Cold War. The former sought to destabilise any Arab or regional power that threatened it, and the latter saw an ongoing confrontation between the US-led West and the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.
The July Revolution was a watershed moment in shaping the destiny of modern Egypt. It capped a 72-year-old national struggle for freedom in Egypt and in the conduct of its foreign relations. It was also a classic case of the relations between the military and society and of the complete identification of the two. This identification manifested itself again in the 2011 and 2013 Revolutions.
French journalist Jean Lacouture wrote a biography of Nasser that covered his thinking in the 1960s. He asked the Egyptian leader what his most enduring legacy would be. According to Lacouture, Nasser stayed silent for a moment and then repeated the famous slogan of the early days of the revolution: “Lift up your head, my brother, the age of colonialism has ended.”
Perhaps this was the most enduring legacy of the revolution for generations of Egyptians.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.