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26 July - 1 August 2001
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For corps and countryFor this chronicler of the Revolution, 1952 is more than just another date
Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection," Anais Nin once remarked -- an observation that could be applied aptly to Ahmed Hamroush's philosophy about documenting the defining moments of his times. Hamroush, a Free Officer and self-styled historian of the 23 July 1952 Revolution, is a prolific writer. He always was. His first published work was Guerrilla Warfare (1947); it was followed by Reflections on War (1949); Secrets of the Battle of Port Said (1956); Egypt and Sudan: The Common Struggle (1966); and Military Coups (1967). More recently, he has written several books in quick succession, including The Pulse of History; The Game of Politics; The Story of the Press in Egypt; and The July Revolution and the Egyptian Psyche. But perhaps his most celebrated work is the eight-part Story of the July Revolution.
According to Hamroush, the Revolution was essentially a spontaneous outbreak of collective exultation at the long-denied chance to have a serious go at national self-determination and assertion in the domestic and international arenas. For the first time in three millennia, Egypt was ruled by an Egyptian: Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The course of history was changed beyond recognition. Hamroush believes that his special circumstances -- having helped make the history he writes, and his fascination with Nasser's charismatic personality -- illuminate rather than obscure his research. He is proud of the part he played, even if at times it appeared somewhat peripheral, even in his own eyes.
Hamroush was a member of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL), the largest of Egypt's Communist groups, before he was a Free Officer. Perhaps that earlier affiliation sealed his political fate and restricted the role he was later to play, although as leader of the DMNL's military branch, he was in an excellent position to liaise between the Communists and his fellow Free Officers. Hamroush was instrumental in drafting and printing Free Officer leaflets on the DMNL presses. Along with Nasser, Khaled Mohieddin (another DMNL member and Free Officer) and Communist leader Ahmed Fouad, chief civilian liaison between the DMNL central committee and military wing, he made sure that the Free Officers' literature was distributed through DMNL channels in the months immediately preceding the Revolution. "Khaled Mohieddin was the primary link between Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the Communists" -- Hamroush, in characteristically self-effacing mode, gives credit where it is due. Mohieddin, after all, was a member of the Command Council of the Revolution, while Hamroush was not.
On the eve of the July Revolution, he was in Alexandria propagating the Free Officers' political agenda among the disgruntled Egyptian troops, who were still in a state of shock after the 1948 defeat of the Arab armies in Palestine. On 22 July, Nasser charged Hamroush with mobilising loyal units in Alexandria. "I was with Salah Mustafa, who later, as a military attaché of the Egyptian embassy in Amman, was assassinated by Mossad agents. Shawqi and Ezz Al-Arab Abdel-Nasser, the late president's brothers, joined me in Alexandria later in the day on 23 July," he remembers.
Five decades on, the question of what we should make of Nasser and the era he shaped remains a vexed question. But Hamroush asserts that the Revolution's pros far outweighed its cons. It hastened the end of feudalism in Egypt, and laid the foundations for modern industrial and economic development. Nasser was a national miracle, and held the nation spellbound.
Hamroush's works provide useful insight into the mindset and modus operandi of the men who spearheaded the Revolution, the Free Officers. In Cairo, armoured vehicles and artillery units sealed off the downtown district, then inhabited largely by foreigners. The Free Officers deployed troops on the roads leading out of Cairo to forestall British intervention. Youssef Siddiq's motorised infantry battalion stormed army headquarters before midnight and by 7.00am Anwar El-Sadat was broadcasting the Free Officers' first message to the nation.
"Unlike the troops in Cairo, we in Alexandria were asked not to move, but to hold our peace. The king was, after all, in Alexandria with many senior court officials and cabinet ministers," Hamroush explains. "All the higher-ranking officers were relieved of their posts." Despite the Free Officers' triumph in the Officers' Club elections of 1951, King Farouk eyed the senior officers with mistrust, little suspecting that another Ahmed Orabi would emerge from the lower ranks. As far as the king was concerned, the army's main task was to clamp down on domestic unrest and restore order on the streets after riots and demonstrations.
Intoxicated by their unexpected success, the Free Officers moved to consolidate it. "In the afternoon of 23 July, Nasser phoned me and warned that General Hussein Sirri Amer, the head of the Frontier Guards, was trying to flee the country for Libya. 'Stop him,' Nasser ordered." Emotions were running high and some Free Officers went overboard. "[Free Officer] Gamal Salem, an Air Force pilot, wanted the king's head. He flew to Cairo to consult with Nasser, who forbade him to go for the king. At 6.30pm on 26 July, King Farouk I left the country in disgrace, sailing for Naples, Italy. And the rest, as they say, is history," Hamroush muses.
The Free Officers had a clear sense of duty and purpose. Reforming the system after the monarchy's overthrow meant eliminating the bastions of ancien régime political life. Party politicians from across the spectrum of ideological and political affiliation were soon to come to grief. The Free Officers, above all, had a radical agenda of social change. Their task was awesome. Hamroush was sufficiently close to power, yet conveniently detached from the consuming power struggles that gripped the land. That is not to say that everything in the Revolution's garden was lovely in Hamroush's view. Nor was he better able to recall what happened; it is simply that he alone among his fellow officers was driven to rise at the crack of dawn and jot down the observations that would make up his chronicles of the Revolution.
Even today, he wakes at 5.00am and by 6.00 he is at the Gezira Club taking a brisk walk. Then he returns to his apartment near the club, to read and write for a couple of hours before setting off for his office at the Egyptian Solidarity Committee, which he runs. Returning home for lunch and a rest, he returns to the club for a game of croquet, which he loves. For over 40 years he has played, in the afternoons in winter and early evenings in summer. Indeed, Hamroush founded the Egyptian Croquet Federation, and was made its first president.
The Committee, itself the brainchild of the Revolution and Nasser's vision of solidarity with progressive and anti-colonial international causes, has over the years filled an important niche. It was established in August 1958, after the Bandung Conference, where African and Asian leaders of the newly independent countries first met to form the Non-Aligned Movement. The late novelist Youssef El-Siba'i was its first secretary-general. As director, Hamroush comes into close contact with numerous Egyptian and foreign dignitaries. Only last month, he hosted a seminar on the Sudanese political situation -- an old passion of his. Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang was the keynote speaker.
LIFE CHRONICLES: above, meeting President Hosni Mubarak; right, receiving an award from Culture Minister Farouk Hosni (photo: Ahmed Abdel-Razeq)
Sudan holds a special place in Hamroush's heart. He was dispatched there several times by both Nasser and Sadat on special top-secret missions. In October 1964, he was sent as Nasser's personal envoy to probe the situation after a military coup. After another coup in May 1969, that which brought General Jaafar Numeiri to power, Hamroush was dispatched by Nasser to Sudan. After Nasser's death, Sadat also sent Hamroush to Sudan to explore the implications of the failed 19 July 1971 coup in Sudan. "I first met Sadat in 1952, and knew him well. But he did not have Nasser's clear and inspiring vision," Hamroush opines. "I knew Nasser much earlier. He would come to our meetings in his black Austin. We would collect bombs and ammunition for the Feda'iyin in Sharqiya the eastern Delta and the Canal Zone," he remembers.
Soon after the Revolution, Nasser requested him to set up a monthly revolutionary journal directed at the military. Hamroush was appointed editor of Al-Tahrir (Liberation) magazine, the first of the July Revolution's publications. It took him only 16 days to produce the first issue, which appeared on 16 September 1952. Hassan Fouad, Saad Labib, Abdel-Moneim El-Sawi and Abdel-Rahman El-Sharqawi assisted him on the editorial board. "We had a good working team," Hamroush remembers.
Hamroush's career in journalism included jobs editing the monthly magazine Al-Hadaf (The Goal) and working at the government's Al-Gomhouriya newspaper simultaneously. Next, he was editor of Al-Risalah Al-Gadida (The New Herald) followed by Al-Katib (The Writer). But Hamroush lost his job as editor of Al-Tahrir without warning or consultation. His first plum job in journalism ended abruptly and unexpectedly. "I was surprised one day when I was told that Tharwat Okasha had replaced me as editor of Al-Tahrir. The magazine was ahead of its time. We had slogans such as 'We protect the Constitution' and 'We struggle for the peasants' prosperity'."
More set-backs were to follow. Hamroush was implicated in the so-called artillery officers' plot in 1954, and imprisoned. "After the 1954 crisis, I was surprised to see myself transferred to Al-Geish Al- Murabit, the 'stationary,' or reserve army. Next, I found myself in the relatively pampered Foreigners' Prison for 50 days. I was put in one of five especially well-kept cells reserved for foreign women prisoners." After his release, Hamroush still felt he had much to offer the Revolution. He bore no grudges.
A dramatic change of career came unexpectedly when he was appointed director of the National Theatre in October 1956. "I was going mad. I was a soldier, a fighter. My country was at war. Worse -- I was a Free Officer who now found himself relegated to the sidelines," Hamroush explains. "I deeply resented my marginalisation."
He eventually came to love his work as head of the National Theatre, however. Hamroush is constructive by nature and doesn't give in to negative feelings. He instinctively made the most of his new and unfamiliar situation, digging deep into the archives and unearthing old plays. One, Dinshway, held his attention. The play revolved around an incident that occurred in 1907, when the British colonial authorities set up a kangaroo court and hanged several peasants who had chased British soldiers shooting pigeons in the Delta village of Dinshway, a chase during which one British soldier died as he fled the angry mob. The incident provoked popular resentment throughout the country against British colonial rule and triggered a chain of events that ultimately led to the 1919 Revolution.
Even as the 1956 Suez Crisis erupted, Hamroush put on the play to popular acclaim. "We opened the theatre doors to the public between 2.00pm and 5.00pm without charging admission fees. The public loved it: audiences went wild with excitement.
Hamroush was reluctant at first to work with actors and artists, but he came to appreciate and love the stage and its leading lights: Amina Rizq, Sanaa Gamil, Samiha Ayoub and Soheir El-Babli. "They were sensitive and emotional people, passionate about their work. They were also idealists, which greatly appealed to me."
The actors appreciated him too. One of them was very ill in hospital. Forty of his fellow thespians decided to pay him a surprise visit. When they saw the deplorable conditions of his ward, Hamroush broke down and wept. He went up to the hospital management and requested that the actor be transferred, a request that was promptly granted. This gesture won him a place in the actors' hearts.
Hamroush lost his job as National Theatre director at a time when he had come to love it, and as suddenly as he had been removed from editing Al- Tahrir. Not one to capitulate, he decided to write, for he had much free time. He wrote travel books like From Tokyo to London (1966), but also plays: Crisis (1959) and Silence (1964). No sooner had he got down to writing than Nasser appointed him editor of Rose El-Youssef. This was a challenging job, which gave him ample opportunity to indulge in his favourite pet hobby, politics. He was never given a chance to dabble too much, but as a political writer he got his own back.
He had first tasted formal politics as a student at Al-Tawfiqiya Secondary School, in 1935. That year, students protested the suspension of the Constitution by Ismail Pasha Sedqi. He joined the demonstrations and was promptly arrested, along with 35 other students, and put in police custody. After their release, the students were expelled; less than a month later, however, the Constitution was restored and the students went back to school.
Hamroush enrolled in the Military Academy in 1939. His family were enthusiastic because an officer was sure to find a job in the army. Other graduates had few employment opportunities, they reasoned. A career in the military guaranteed a job for life.
Events were to take a slightly different turn, however. After graduating in 1942, Hamroush met Mohamed Bey Khattab, member of the Senate, who had then introduced a bill limiting property to 50 feddans. "I knew all too well the wretchedness of the peasantry, and I was curious to know more about the man and his plans." Khattab asked Hamroush "strange questions, like 'Have you read A Mission to Moscow?,' 'Have you heard of Lenin?,' and 'When did the Great Socialist Revolution occur?'..." He asked Hamroush to attend a lecture he was to deliver at a scientific research centre in Sayeda Zeinab. "There I found the cream of Egypt's youth. I was thoroughly impressed. Finally I understood. These were all leftists who yearned for social justice." Hamroush was immediately won over.
These early connections with Communists in Egypt came in handy later on in life, when Egyptian Jewish former Communists who had refused to emigrate to Israel and had settled in France contacted Hamroush hoping he could help establish contacts between peace activists in Israel and the Nasser regime. Nasser sent Hamroush to meet with Naom Golman, through the good offices of Le Monde's Eric Rouleau. "The late Yugoslav President Josef Broz Tito was also involved in the mediation."
Hamroush was born in modest circumstances in the Middle Egyptian provincial town of Beni Suef in September 1921. He hailed from a rural and religious background. His father was a sheikh, a jurist specialised in personal status affairs -- the vocation was abolished in 1954 -- who frequently travelled around the country, but died when Hamroush was barely two. The child was raised by his mother and grandparents in the village of Al-Khawalid, in the northwestern Delta. It was the wretched conditions of this rural backwater that fired his resolve to rid his country and his people of abject and grinding poverty. It was these images of rural destitution that left an indelible mark on his psyche and fired his youthful enthusiasm for Marxism and, later, the promise of the July Revolution.
photo: Mohamed Wassim
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