|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
24 - 30 January 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
To the last bullet
Two harbingers announced the 1952 Revolution. One was the event of his life
Profile by Amira Ibrahim
Entering Mustafa Rifaat's flat on Murad Street, opposite the Zoological Gardens, the first impression is one of good taste. The second inevitably links the well-dressed, perfectly groomed lady who opens the door with the carefully arranged knickknacks, trinkets and trophies scattered about the reception area to where she is leading us. As we sit, it becomes clear that she is Mrs Mustafa Rifaat -- also known as Naila. She announces in a louder voice to somebody inside: "They're here, Mustafa."
Mustafa Rifaat, an impressively tall man in his mid-70s, is also impeccably dressed: dark suit, white shirt, gold cufflinks, burgundy silk tie held discreetly in place by a gold pin. He walks in exuding an air of friendly authority and confidence. While he is still welcoming us, Mrs Rifaat slips into one of the inside rooms, quickly re-emerging with an old-fashioned tape recorder, which she places in front of us. She must have her own record of the interview, she explains.
As Mustafa Rifaat begins to tell us about that fateful day, 25 January 1952, when he led the Auxiliary Police in their confrontation with the British troops in Ismailia, his voice deepens and his eyes sparkle: "There are moments when one has to make very difficult choices. On that day I took the decision that, whether I lived or died, it had to be with honour."
In those days, over 60,000 British soldiers were stationed in the Suez Canal Zone Base. In October 1951, Egypt unilaterally abrogated the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which legalised the presence of British troops at that base; but it soon became clear that something more than a mere announcement from the Egyptian government was necessary for the troops to evacuate.
The Egyptian police force in Ismailia had been increased following the abrogation of the treaty to guarantee law and order in the city and its neighbouring districts, where popular resistance to British occupation of the Canal Zone, backed by the formation of guerrilla units targeting British servicemen, had intensified. In January 1952, there were approximately 800-1,000 Egyptian policemen stationed in two locations in Ismailia: the police station and the Bureau Sanitaire, used as temporary barracks for the auxiliary police, where arms were also kept.
"At 5am, one of the workers at the hotel where some police officers, including myself, were lodged, informed us that British forces were being positioned around the Bureau Sanitaire and that back-up troops were cordoning off the whole city. We were four officers: Abdel-Messih Morqos, Mustafa Ashoub, Hassan Abul-Suoud and myself. We discussed what was to be done and decided that it was our duty to join the besieged soldiers in the auxiliary police barracks. Having reached that decision, we wanted to take an oath; and, as it is the custom among Muslims to recite the fatha as a pledge of goodwill, we asked our Christian colleague, Morqos, to recite his prayers instead, but he insisted on joining us in reciting the fatha as well. As we headed to the barracks, we knew we were dead for sure."
The aim of the British attack on the barracks, dubbed "Operation Eagle," was to disarm the police, who, the British suspected, were participating in guerrilla activities targeting the base. Approaching the barracks, the four officers could see the old building encircled on all sides by British troops, armoured cars, gun carriers and Centurion tanks. The commander of Operation Eagle, Brigadier Exham, was standing before the main entrance dressed in field uniform and surrounded by staff officers. As the four Egyptian officers walked through the troops, heading toward the entrance, they came face to face with Brigadier Exham.
Rifaat's voice softens. "I still remember the exact words exchanged during this encounter. I shall never forget them as long as I live."
Exham asked him: Why were they here?
"I replied: 'This is our place. Why are you here?' He said: 'I gave my orders to all soldiers to come out with their arms above their heads, leave their weapons behind and board the train waiting in the station to take them to Cairo. I shall wait another five minutes. If they do not comply I shall take the necessary action.' He then pointed at the Egyptian flag atop the building and added: 'And take that rubbish with you when you go'." Rifaat replied: "Not even if you wait 50 years. We will never evacuate the place under such terms. You will take only our dead bodies out."
'Only then did I see the dozens of bodies and the blood on the walls. I was shocked as I never had been before. The dead men were smiling. Ever since, I have tried to avoid remembering that scene, but I simply cannot'
photos: Ahmed Abdel-Raziq
Inside the building, soldiers were busy collecting whatever they could to barricade themselves in, and taking positions behind the wooden windows with their Lee Enfield rifles at the ready.
"Our arrival at the barracks helped boost the soldiers' morale. They felt that their officers had not deserted them. We could not have had second thoughts about the decision to fight. Even if we had wanted to, they would not have allowed us."
Less than an hour later, a tank came crashing through the main gate, demolishing walls in the process. The battle began at 7am. Heavy artillery bombarded the building and in the course of less than four hours 11 policemen were killed. Only at 11am did the besieged policemen receive the first and only telephone call from Cairo.
"The then interior minister, Fouad Serageddin Pasha, asked the telephone operator to fetch any officer and, since I was the most senior officer inside, I proceeded to the telephone room."
Rifaat's telephone conversation with the minister was quite brief, but it gave rise to a controversy that lingers until the present day. Did Serageddin Pasha, then interior minister and secretary-general of the Wafd Party, who resurfaced in the 1980s as chairman of the revived Wafd, order his men to resist the British troops as fiercely as they did, or had the confrontation gone far beyond his expectations? "I cannot speculate about what was going through his mind. I can only say, in all fairness, that the decision to put up a heroic resistance was not his. Nor was it mine, for that matter. It was the soldiers' decision. They refused to comply with British orders, even before our appearance on the scene," Rifaat says.
Until today, however, the Wafd's official story holds that Serageddin took the decision to confront the British forces and issued direct orders to the policemen to resist to the last bullet. Rifaat, however, has a different story: "When I talked to him on the phone, he asked me what was going on. I explained the situation to him and told him that I had lost 11 of my soldiers, and he asked me what we wanted to do. I told him it had been the soldiers' decision to fight the battle till the last bullet. He then asked once again: Is this your final decision? I said it was, so he wished us good luck and hung up."
As Rifaat stepped out of the telephone room, a bomb destroyed the operator's unit and the number of the wounded and the dead increased. "I tried to call an ambulance for the injured, but Exham insisted we should surrender first. The building was ablaze and injuries were increasing, so I asked for medical help more than once, but received no response. By 4.30pm we had run out of bullets, so I went out to negotiate the terms of surrender. I asked for honourable conditions, befitting good soldiers, and demanded that the Egyptian flag remain on the building. By that time, it was the general commander of the British troops in Ismailia who was negotiating with me, not Exham, and he accepted the conditions I had put to him."
As the Egyptian policemen who were still alive marched out of the building, the British commander ordered a military salute. Fifty-six policemen had been killed, 80 had been injured. British casualties were estimated at 13 dead and 12 injured.
In retrospect, Rifaat does not feel that the decision he took with his colleagues was a hasty one. The police's active participation in the armed resistance had been decided long before the Ismailia battle. Resistance, with or without government backing, was the Egyptian people's rallying cry. The confrontation on 25 January was not the first. Policemen had been involved in skirmishes with British troops in the Canal Zone, at Tel Al-Kebir, Kafr Abduh, Suez and Port Said.
The next day, while Cairo was burning, the policemen were transferred to the Eastern Desert near Fayed. They were maltreated, contrary to the British commander's promise.
"We went on strike to protest the poor food, the dirty beds, and denial of access to bathrooms except once a day. Later we were told that the newly formed Egyptian government wanted us to be kept in jail," Rifaat remembers sadly, but without bitterness.
Toward the end of February, the policemen were released. Rifaat and his colleagues were taken in a lorry to Cairo where they met the new interior minister, Murtada El-Maraghi.
"He did not seem particularly happy to see us alive. The only one who greeted us warmly at the ministry headquarters was the elevator boy." Not long after this meeting, Rifaat and his three colleagues were fired from the police service. He moved to Alexandria, where he stayed until the army took over on 23 July.
"On 24 July, a friend of mine who had been a member of the Free Officers visited me in Alexandria and escorted me to Cairo, where I met President Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Nasser asked why the police officers had not yet expressed their support for the 23 July army movement. I understood what he meant. I went straight to the Police Academy, where we wrote a statement of support."
The role Rifaat played in the Ismailia confrontation did not come about by chance. Deserting his prestigious position as an instructor at the Police Academy to join the police in the Canal Zone was a deliberate decision: he wanted to join the armed resistance. Upon arrival, he found two colleagues who had also transferred themselves to Ismailia for the same purpose: Salah Dessouqi, later the governor of Cairo, and Salah Zul-Fiqar, who deserted his career as a police officer after the Revolution for what was to be a brilliant career in cinema.
The three officers volunteered to train the soldiers in Ismailia, where casualties among the fida'iyin and citizens had been high, to defend themselves against repeated British attacks. But in Ismailia, senior officers gave them a cool welcome. "Instead of attacking the British soldiers as we had planned, we were appointed as guards for the British who worked at the Canal company. We could not go on with the job. Later we joined the Auxiliary Police, and that is when the real work started."
The three officers carried out a number of organised attacks that Rifaat still remembers. One of these operations was the destruction of Sala Bridge, which crosses the Ismailia tunnel and links the eastern and western sides of the city.
"The British army constructed a wireless communication station over the bridge. Two guerrilla fighters disguised as fruit vendors trundled their carts to the middle of the bridge. One of them pretended to want to sell his oranges to the British soldiers, while the other pretended to be telling him off for collaborating with the occupiers. The two started a fight and moved slowly towards an Egyptian policeman who happened to be on duty there. The three moved away. The English soldiers had been busy taking the fruit, and did not realise that explosives were hidden underneath. Within seconds the bridge was destroyed."
As a police officer, Rifaat would have moved to rescue any guerrilla fighters that the British troops happened to arrest during the day. But at night, he became one of those fighters. During the months that followed, British soldiers became easy targets even for ordinary citizens. A favourite place for dumping the bodies of the killed British soldiers was the Sweet Water Canal and its subsidiaries.
"In the morning, the British would search for soldiers reported to have gone missing at night around the Sweet Water Canal. They often drained smaller canals in their search. When we saw them going out to do this, we would comment: 'Well, the British army is going fishing today.'"
By then, Rifaat and his colleagues were in touch with the clandestine Free Officers organisation, which provided the guerrillas with weapons and organised training camps on the eastern bank of the canal.
Still, he was never a member of a clandestine political organisation. "I have never liked the idea of underground work. I have always liked to do whatever I wanted to do in broad daylight, not in the dark. The only exception was Ismailia, and I was convinced of what I was doing."
Fifty years after Ismailia, Rifaat says one ghastly sight will haunt him as long as he lives: the Auxiliary Police barracks by the end of the battle. "After the soldiers left the building, I went back in with the British staff officer to make arrangements for criminals kept inside the building and other things. He stopped near the bodies of my men, covered his face in his hands and said: 'What a rotten job we have done.'
"Only then did I see the dozens of bodies and the blood on the walls. I was shocked as I never had been before. The dead men were smiling. Ever since, I have tried to avoid remembering that scene, but I simply cannot."
Does this mean he regrets the decision to fight tanks and armoured vehicles with rifles? "Absolutely not. I could not have stopped the soldiers if I had wanted to. They were ready to shoot anyone suggesting surrender. My colleagues and I had gone to Ismailia to take part in the resistance. We had to face the situation and choose to act as brave soldiers or as cowards. Even if the minister had ordered us to surrender, we would not have done it."
That was not the end of Rifaat's career as a police officer -- not by a long shot. During the 1973 War, he was promoted to general police commander in Suez. In the late '70s, he was appointed assistant to the minister of interior for internal security affairs. In 1984, aged 60, Rifaat finally retired. At last, he was able to spend time with Naila, their children, Medhat and Ulfat, and their four grandchildren. He also dedicated more time to sports -- at which he has always excelled, obtaining medals in gymnastics and water polo, and heading the Water Polo Federation in the 1990s. And so, while he is a man with memories -- a man who cannot escape even those memories he would like to forget -- he is also entirely incapable of dwelling on a past he cannot change. Nor, indeed, would he want to.
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