4 - 10 July 2002
Issue No. 593
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
'What revolution?'Where were you on 23 July 1952? Al-Ahram Weekly continues its series of interviews with public figures on their recollections of the revolution. Former Wafdist MP Yassin Serageddin speaks to Shaden Shehab
Yassin Serageddin was on a ship on his way back from Europe when the Free Officers took power in Egypt in July 1952.
Click to view caption
Serageddin with King Farouk in 1950;
Serageddin with El-Nahhas Pasha;
"I was told by the other passengers that King Farouk had been removed, and like them I was certainly very happy," Serageddin recalled. "We [the Wafd Party] were not in harmony with the palace, so it was naturally a blessing for us to get rid of the corrupt king and his group, which was even more corrupt."
Nevertheless, Serageddin said that he still felt insecure, not knowing whether what he calls the "popular Wafd Party" would be tolerated by the new regime. Even today speaking about the revolution and its aftermath is not easy for Serageddin. "Everyone would like to forget the bitter periods in life," the 77-year-old Serageddin comments, sitting in a chair in his bedroom and recollecting with difficulty the events of 50 years ago.
Asked to clarify certain points, he shrugs and says "don't be greedy and ask me too many questions. My health won't allow it." Today, Serageddin can only spend short periods in company, sitting in a chair or moving around in his wheelchair. His villa in Giza, overlooking the Nile, has touches almost of royalty about it, with its classically styled furniture and rich decor.
In 1945, Serageddin owned two newspapers, Al- Nidaa and Sawt Al-Umma, and in 1950 he became an MP for the Wafd Party, his elder brother Fouad being the party's secretary-general.
"I was the youngest MP at the time, officially 30 years old, but in reality 27," he says, having changed his date of birth so he could meet the required age of 30 for MPs. "King Farouk himself met me when he opened the parliamentary session," Serageddin recalls, "since protocol dictated that the king meet the oldest and the youngest member of parliament". In 1951, Serageddin headed the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.
Since the first popularly elected parliament was formed in 1924, the Wafd Party had enjoyed one parliamentary election victory after another in Egypt's then multi-party system. It had led the national struggle for independence for over three decades, gaining popularity among the people, and, during the period of unrest that preceded the 1952 Revolution, the Wafd Party, led by Mustafa El- Nahhas, had formed its last government in 1950.
In 1951, El-Nahhas abrogated the 1936 Anglo- Egyptian treaty, which provided the legal justification for the British occupation of the country, El- Nahhas telling the Egyptian parliament that "we signed the treaty for Egypt's sake, and for Egypt's sake I ask you to abrogate it."
Under the 1936 treaty, though Egypt had the right to manage its own foreign affairs and post diplomats abroad, the British still occupied the country's main cities. Under the treaty's arrangements, British forces were stationed in the Suez Canal Zone, with the British navy being allowed to use Alexandria as a base. British troops could only move outside the Canal Zone during times of war.
In early 1952, Fouad Serageddin, Yassin Serageddin's older brother, and then serving both as minister of the interior and as general secretary of the Wafd, ordered an Egyptian police garrison in Ismailia in the Canal Zone to engage in battle with British occupation forces, even though the Egyptian police were armed only with rifles and the British forces had field guns. What followed was predictable enough, with many Egyptian police being killed, and widespread protests, followed by arson attacks on British and foreign property, took place in Cairo on 26 January, 1952. The Wafd government was dismissed.
According to Yassin Serageddin, "Fouad Pasha and El-Nahhas Pasha were in Europe when the revolutionaries took power in July. When they received the news, they were advised by Wafd Party members to return to Egypt and congratulate the Free Officers for having ended the old regime. I was against this, thinking that it would be better to wait and see what the revolutionaries wanted before congratulating them."
Nevertheless, both his elder brother and the former Wafd prime minister decided to return to the country, coming by air, "the first time that El- Nahhas Pasha had been in an aeroplane".
"The plane arrived at 3am, and to their surprise they were told that the revolutionaries were waiting for them at this time in the morning. Fouad Pasha offered to pay them a visit at a more decent time, but he was told that the revolutionaries were waiting for them and that they should go now."
Yassin Serageddin comments that El-Nahhas had argued that they should take the revolutionaries up on their invitation, saying "Let's go now, Fouad, and get it over with."
"It was not a promising meeting," he says, "and from that moment on things just got worse and worse. When Fouad Pasha and El-Nahhas Pasha went to the revolutionary headquarters, they were greeted coldly. They found the revolutionaries standing in a semi-circle waiting for them led by Mohamed Naguib [first president of the republic]."
"To break the tension, El-Nahhas Pasha approached Naguib and hugged him, saying congratulatory words. But none of the other Free Officers shook hands with them or even served them so much as a glass of water."
"Were you offered a drink when you arrived?" Serageddin breaks off by saying. "It's important that visitors should be properly greeted," he says.
"It became clear that the Free Officers and especially Gamal Abdel-Nasser, a fact that became increasingly clear in the time that followed, had assumed from the start that the Wafd was their enemy." Soon after this initial meeting between members of the former Wafd government and the leaders of the post-revolutionary regime, Fouad Serageddin was put on trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison, though he was released after two months. Then, in September 1953 the Serageddin brothers were detained with about 70 other politicians of different trends in the Al-Thanawiya Al-Askariya military school for four months.
"Instead of confining us to our homes, they decided to put us all in one place," Serageddin remembers. "I was the youngest member of the group, holding the most junior public post being just an ordinary MP. Other members of the group had held important political positions before 1952."
"We were treated very well," he says, "a unique occasion that was not repeated in the following imprisonments during Abdel-Nasser's time." The detainees were allowed medical attention, and they enjoyed good food.
According to Serageddin, it was only now that he realised that it was Nasser, and not Mohamed Naguib, who was in control of the state. Naguib, however, had twice visited the group during their period of detention, assuring them of their near release and asking them to end the hunger strike that some of the prisoners had started in order to protest against their detention.
"Funnily enough, it was not a real hunger strike," Serageddin remembers. "Food was smuggled in to us from the outside, and we just refused to eat what was provided in the prison."
The group was soon released, and later Serageddin found himself at a reception at the old Semiramis Hotel in Cairo also attended by Nasser.
"He had someone ask me if I would appear in a photograph with him," Serageddin says, "and I went to where he was standing and carried out his wishes. He then said to me, I don't know whether sincerely or not, that he apologised for our detention in the military school."
Nasser at this period had requested the pre- revolutionary political parties to "purify" themselves of counter-revolutionary elements, and "of course he meant the Wafd", Serageddin says. "Therefore, Fouad Pasha and I resigned from the party so that Nasser would have his way, and as a result there was considerable dissension in party ranks over who should become party secretary following Fouad Pasha. But Nasser soon banned all political parties anyway."
Like many Wafdists, Serageddin was from a wealthy family of landowners on both sides, his mother coming from the Badrawi Ashour family, and aside from Yassin and Fouad there were six other children, all of whom have now passed away.
Serageddin has harsh words for the revolutionary regime. "Besides imprisoning and prosecuting us, the revolutionary regime sequestrated our property, the Agricultural Land Reform Law stripping us of our own land," he said. "More than 30 thousand feddans [acres] were taken from us and the property we owned was confiscated and given to insurance companies, leaving us only with our homes."
"Nasser repeatedly said that the revolution cannot accommodate the Wafdists," Serageddin continues, "since some of the leading figures in the Wafd were landowners and thousands of feddans were taken from them."
Serageddin himself was detained five times during Nasser's regime, the last detention, the longest, being "from 12 September 1965 to 22 November 1967, two years and three months. I did not know exactly the reason for each imprisonment, and nor did the other prisoners, but it was always along the lines of opposing the Land Reform Law or opposing Nasser's regime. The last imprisonment was because I was accused of arranging the funeral of El- Nahhas Pasha. This was massively well attended", embarrassing the regime.
"When a person was released from prison at this time," Serageddin remembers, "the police officers in charge would usually apologise, since we had been forced to live like pigs. There is nothing more to say on the matter."
Serageddin's family property was confiscated by the regime, forcing him to earn a living. "I became a lawyer, and Fouad Pasha became an antiques valuer. Few people asked me to practice law on their behalf, however; mostly, I needed to be my own lawyer because of the continuous arrests."
"We felt humiliation, and we felt what it is like to need money. We sold what we owned at cheap prices to survive. Not only did we suffer as a result of the revolution, we were completely devastated by it." Serageddin says that his hostility towards the revolution is a result of how it made him and his family suffer.
Fifty years on, does the revolution have a positive or a negative legacy?
"What revolution?" he asks sarcastically. "People use the term 'revolution' to describe what happened on 23 July, but it was not a revolution at all. A revolution is a result of a popular movement from the grassroots upwards. This was only a movement at the top, what at the time was even labelled a 'blessed movement'."
"50 years later people are celebrating what they call 'the revolution'. Let them, if it makes them happy."
"In theory, the revolution was based on six principles, but none of these was followed after 23 July. Originally, the Wafd had called for these same principles. Agricultural reform, for example, had been called for by the Wafd youth movement for years, and free education was implemented by the Wafd prior to its extension to university level by the revolutionary regime."
"However, even more important was the ending of the British occupation, which the Wafd had aimed for since the start. The Wafd Party was even in favour of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal," he says, "but we said that the nationalisation should be properly carried out in a true sense, in the way these things are done in democratic nations."
"The revolution accomplished nothing. Even the Aswan High Dam is not a great achievement, since any country could have done the same. It is not a mark of genius to build a dam; it is just a matter of routine construction."
"But let us talk no further about the past. Let's look forward to building a better future instead," Serageddin says, calling the interview to a close.
"People use the term 'revolution' to describe what happened on 23 July, but it was not a revolution at all.
A revolution is a result of a popular movement from the grassroots upwards. This was only a movement at the top, what at the time was even labelled a 'blessed movement'"
Letter from the Editor
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