Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues
20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

< 1940-49 1950 - 1959 1960-69 >
Abdin Palace Mohamed Hassanein Heikal
Salalah Abdel-Sabour
Mohamed Mandour
Ihsan Abdel-Quddus
Mahmoud El-Meligui
King Farouk Revolutionary Command Council
Cairo Fire
Agrarian Reform Law
Draft evacuation agreement Demonstrations
Bandung Syrians welcome Nasser

As the '50s began, turmoil reigned. The monarchy had become synonymous with scandal and moral decadence, British domination was intolerable, and the people's party, the Wafd --returning to power with an overwhelming parliamentary majority in 1950 --was about to perform its swan song. In October 1951, Wafd leader Mustafa El-Nahhas declared Egypt's unilateral abrogation of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. Armed struggle was launched in the Canal Zone, and radical social movements (notably, the Muslim Brotherhood, the communists and Ahmed Hussein's Socialist Party) began to outflank the increasingly conservative and paralysed Wafd. A new generation of army officers, seething with nationalist sentiment and calling themselves the Free Officers, held secret meetings and laboured to hatch what must have seemed a highly unlikely conspiracy.

On 25 January 1952, British occupation forces in Suez attacked the Ismailiya barracks, staffed and heroically defended by a small and lightly armed contingent of the Egyptian Buluk Nizam. Fifty Egyptians were killed. The following day, the Buluk Nizam from the Abbasiya barracks in Cairo, demanding arms to fight the British, marched to the university, where they were joined by thousands of students (second row from bottom, second from left). Tragically, what began as a great patriotic demonstration soon degenerated into the Cairo Fire (second row from top, third from left): "This was no longer a people but a howling mob, striking out, striking itself, grasping at its phantom foes, and as it tried to rend them rending itself," wrote Jacques Berque.

The king declared martial law, the Wafd government was thrown out and the stage was set for the Free Officers to radically transform the face of the country.

On 23 July, the Free Officers seized army GHQ and laid siege to Abdin Palace in Cairo and Ras El-Tin Palace in Alexandria (main photo). King Farouk, forced to abdicate, was put on his royal yacht in Alexandria (left, second row from top), and left the country for the last time. The Revolutionary Command Council (second row from top, second from left) was established under Mohamed Naguib; but it was clear from the outset that the real leader was Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

In September 1952, the first Agrarian Reform Law was enacted, limiting land ownership to 200 feddans. For the first time, land was distributed to landless peasants (bottom row, third from left). By June 1953, the Republic was declared. For the first time in millennia, Egypt was ruled by Egyptians. The February/March crisis of 1954 confirmed Nasser's undisputed leadership; Naguib remained as a figure-head until November, when he was shorn of the presidency and placed under house arrest. Nasser's anti-imperialist radicalism and the authoritarian character of the new regime would determine the course of Egyptian history for the rest of the century. The revolutionary regime had dissolved all political parties in January 1953, and as early as August 1952 had put two textile workers to death for leading a peaceful strike. In November 1954, following a failed assassination attempt on Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood (the only political group not suppressed in 1953) was dissolved, launching a bitter feud that was to continue, often at great cost, for the rest of the century.

The signing of a draft evacuation agreement with Britain in July 1954 (left, second row from bottom: British soldiers in the Canal zone looking at an Al-Ahram copy announcing the signing of the agreement) effectively certified Egypt's independence. Independence would come at a cost, however: Britain and the US expected Egypt to join the Baghdad Pact. Nasser actively fought the offer on the Arab level, effectively making it a dead letter. In April 1955, soon after an Israeli raid on Egyptian-controlled Gaza left 50 Egyptians dead, Nasser was in Bandung to attend the first Afro-Asian Conference. There he met Chou En Lai, Nehru and Sukarno (bottom row, left); a new generation of world leaders from the South was born. A major result of Bandung would follow shortly. In September '55, Egypt signed an arms deal with Czechoslovakia in an attempt to defy the West's virtual arms embargo on the country and to face the increasing threat from Israel.

Meanwhile, the World Bank, under US pressure, reneged on its promise to finance the Aswan High Dam project. On 26 July 1956, Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Overnight, he was the undisputed liberator not only of Egypt, but of the Arab world. On 29 October, Israel invaded Sinai. Two days later, British and French forces were bombing Egyptian air fields and, on 5 November, landing in Port Said.

Resistance in the Suez Canal Zone, a Soviet ultimatum, and immense US pressure finally forced the three governments to withdraw their forces. The Suez War was a great victory for Nasser, the Arabs and the Third World.

In February 1958, the short-lived Egyptian-Syrian merger was accomplished. In Damascus, millions of Syrians thronged to hail Nasser as leader of the Arabs. (bottom row, second from left).

In a tragic footnote to the heady '50s, Egyptian communists were rounded up at dawn on 1 January 1959. The round-up, which continued until 1960, included hundreds of intellectuals and workers. "The Journey", as the communists came to call their five-year incarceration, was extremely brutal, surpassed only by the clamp-downs on the Muslim Brothers in the '60s.

Sidebar, from top: journalist extraordinaire Mohamed Hassanein Heikal; poet Salah Abdel-Sabour; literary critic Mohamed Mandour, best-selling novelist Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, actor Mahmoud El-Meligui.

 

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