18 - 24 July 2002
Issue No. 595
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

The forgotten president

A figurehead to remember: Nevine Khalil profiles Egypt's first president, a soon- to-be dislocated arm of the revolution


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"In this vehicle is Major-General Mohamed Naguib, the former president, who was kidnapped on 1 November 1956 by the military police... He has been imprisoned for 51 days, and no one knows his whereabouts... Now he is being escorted to another unknown location. Please follow the car and report this information. [Signed:] Mohamed Naguib 21/12/1956."

This is an excerpt from the notes that Egypt's first president frantically wrote and threw out of the window of a car whisking him along deserted roads in Upper Egypt. After being humiliatingly removed from power by the officers whom he had led in the Revolution of 23 July 1952, he had now been reduced to crying for help to passers by, fearing for his life.

However, no one took any notice of the scraps of paper that littered the road that day, and today nobody really remembers Mohamed Naguib, whose short- lived presidency by then had served its purpose. On 18 June 1953, when Egypt was declared a Republic, Naguib, the highest-ranking member of the Free Officers, became president, an office he held until he was removed from power on 14 November 1954.

Those 17 months in power had been uncomfortable ones for Naguib, trying simultaneously to run the country, to rein in the enthusiasm of the junior officers, to organise priorities, to maintain the unity of the ruling Revolution Command Council (RCC), and to secure Egypt's future without alienating the people or provoking foreign intervention.

Eventually, Naguib was unable to hold the RCC together, and as a result of a power struggle between him and Gamal Abdel-Nasser he was quietly escorted on 14 November 1954 out of RCC headquarters to his house in El-Marg, where he remained under house arrest for the following 18 years.

Naguib in some ways thus suffered a fate worse than that of the king he had ousted, though he was eventually released on the orders of President Anwar El-Sadat in 1972. However, nearly two decades of anguish and neglect had taken their toll on Naguib, and he died a lonely and broken man in 1984. Only then was he finally honoured with a military funeral.

Mohamed Naguib was born in 1901, the eldest of nine children of Youssef Naguib and Zohra Ahmed Osman . He came from a long line of army officers, and was born in Sudan, where his father was serving in the Egyptian army. Naguib spent his formative years in Sudan, where as a child ostriches and monkeys were his playmates in a house decorated with hunting trophies like elephant tusks, tiger-skin rugs and rhinoceros and gazelle heads on the wall.

Naguib's favourite game, however, was playing at soldiers with his younger brother, Ali. Having built a toy fortress in the front yard, Naguib would spend hours conquering inches of land with his toy soldiers and miniature tanks.

Nevertheless, Naguib's father did not want his sons to follow in his footsteps, believing from his own experience as an officer in the Egyptian army that the army at that time was little more than a group of auxiliaries waiting for British orders. He believed that Naguib could serve Egypt better in civilian life, and he even had Ibrahim Orabi, son of the 1882 revolutionary Ahmed Orabi, speak to Naguib and caution him that by joining the military he would become only "a supervisor in the service of the British."

As a result, Naguib first studied to become a translator, and later in life he earned a law degree, an MA in political science and another MA in civil law. He never completed his doctorate because his career in the army, undertaken in defiance of his father's wishes, by then had begun to take off. Nevertheless, he found the time to polish up his language skills, learning English, French, Italian and German.

Naguib also began to study Hebrew in the 1950s, and soon after the Revolution he ordered that Hebrew be taught at military college and at Cairo and Alexandria universities, realising that the Egyptian army had been handicapped during the 1948 Palestine War by the fact that very few soldiers could interpret Israeli communications.

While studying in Khartoum, Naguib had often been censured and sometimes even whipped by his British tutors for criticising Britain's occupation of Egypt and Sudan. At this time, Naguib chose Napoleon as a role model, even deciding to sleep on the floor instead of on a bed to imitate the great French general. Soon, however, Napoleon was replaced in Naguib's affections by Mustafa Kamel, the founder of Egypt's National Party, and later he found another hero in Saad Zaghloul. Some years after he was ousted from power, Naguib also came to admire Gandhi and Ataturk.

After the death of Naguib's father in 1916, the family moved to Cairo, while Naguib and Ali finished their studies in Sudan. In 1917, after a brief stint as a translator, Naguib returned to Egypt and joined the military school at the age of 16. He almost did not pass the entrance examinations, since he was one inch shorter than the required height for cadets, but he managed to convince the examiners that since he was still young he had the potential to grow taller, and he was accepted on the condition that he make it to the required height by graduation day.

Following graduation, Naguib was again posted to Sudan, this time to oversee the building of the Sudanese railway. However, he soon became disenchanted with life in the military and with British authority and contemplated pursuing a new career as a lawyer instead. Shortly after this, he was posted to the Royal Guards in Cairo, but in 1924 was moved again because of a political association deemed unacceptable by the authorities.

Naguib married in 1927, pursuing his legal studies while continuing a career in the army. By 1931, he was ready to resign from the army, but as a result of an unexpected promotion he decided to turn his attention to his military career once again. In 1934, he remarried and was transferred to the Coast Guard, where he was employed to chase smugglers across the Sinai desert, mixing with the bedouin and helping treat their illnesses.

In 1940 Naguib was again promoted, and, like many Egyptians at the time, placed his faith in the young King Farouk, who had come to power four years earlier. However, despite generally favourable relations between Naguib and Farouk, Naguib refused to kiss the king's hand. A brisk hand shake was the best Naguib could offer.

Any illusions Naguib might have had about the nature of Farouk's rule evaporated on 4 February 1942 after a standoff at Abdin Palace in Cairo between the British and the king. In protest at Farouk's concessions to the British, allowing them to choose the prime minister, Naguib sent in his resignation, saying that "since the army was not called upon to defend Your Majesty, I am ashamed to wear this uniform and ask your permission to resign."

On this occasion, Farouk turned down Naguib's resignation, Naguib again attempting to resign in 1951 when Hussein Serri Amer, widely thought to be corrupt, was made head of the Coast Guard. Again, the resignation was refused.

Meanwhile, however, Naguib had continued to climb the military ladder, serving in Palestine during the Palestine War in 1948. While on active service in Palestine, Naguib would dedicate 30 minutes every morning to reading the Qur'an, a habit he picked up in childhood, to strengthen his resolve in times of adversity.

In 1949, Naguib secretly joined the Free Officers movement, and a year later he was promoted to the rank of Major-General. Despite his disapproval of his fellow military top brass, Naguib remained in the army in order for the Free Officers not to lose their highest- ranking officer and most influential member.

Finally on 6 January 1952, Naguib won the elections at the army Officers' Club, almost a revolutionary step in itself, since ordinarily the king's appointees held the executive roles in the Club. However, the Free Officers' increasing influence in the army, together with Naguib's reputation, resulted in the defeat of the king's nominees, and Naguib won with a landslide victory.

Farouk was contemplating removing Naguib from his post when Egypt was thrown into turmoil following the 26 January Cairo Fires. Meanwhile, the noose was beginning to tighten around the Free Officers, and investigations being carried out to uncover dissidents in the army. The executive committee of the Officers' Club was dissolved, and the Free Officers, brought their plans for a revolution three years forward, taking power in July 1952.

After the coup d'état on 23 July, Naguib was at the forefront of the Free Officer's movement, lending it legitimacy in the eyes of the people, the army, politicians and foreign powers. Within 24 hours of the coup, the RCC had asserted that their movement was a peaceful one, and that Naguib was their leader. Naguib's was a familiar name at the time, unlike those of the other Free Officers, who were too young and too junior in rank to have made a name for themselves.

On 24 July, Naguib met former prime minister Ali Maher to ask him to form a government and communicate the revolutionaries' demands to the king, at that time in Alexandria. On 25 June, Naguib led a group of RCC members to Alexandria to supervise the ousting of the king, the RCC at the time being divided over what Farouk's fate should be. Some wanted him to be put on trial, while others wanted him to abdicate and be sent into exile. Naguib and Nasser supported exile, and after a vote, it was agreed that the former king would be exiled.

Thus, on 26 July, Naguib arrived to say his farewells to the former king, arriving late and catching up with Farouk by boat, a few minutes after the deposed king had set sail. After an awkward silence on the deck of the royal yacht El-Mahrousa, Naguib reminded Farouk that until the 1942 standoff with the British the army had been loyal to the monarchy, but that things had changed since then.

Naguib said, "Sir, we were forced to do what we did," to which Farouk replied, "Yes, I know. Your mission is a difficult one. As you know, governing Egypt is not an easy task." Leaving the vessel, Naguib felt pity for Farouk because he knew he would fail in exile, as he had when he was king. "I could not feel joy for his defeat," Naguib later said.

Naguib was appointed prime minister when Maher's government resigned on 17 September 1952, one year later becoming simultaneously president, prime minister and chairman of the RCC and forming a government mostly composed of army officers. Nasser became deputy prime minister, and it was already apparent that he had a strong grip on domestic affairs. However, Naguib remained the most senior officer in the government and the notional leader of the country and of the RCC, even as a struggle for power was brewing.

Naguib began to clash with other RCC members over how the Revolution's goals should be implemented. He wanted to phase out the political influence of the military and return the country to civilian rule, believing that the role of the military was not to rule the country, but rather to protect those in power. The army, he thought, could interfere to change a corrupt regime, but then it should withdraw.

As he wrote later in his book, Egypt's Fate, "at the age of 36, Abdel-Nasser felt that we could ignore Egyptian public opinion until we had reached our goals, but with the caution of a 53-year-old, I believed that we needed grassroots support for our policies, even if it meant postponing some of our goals. I differed with the younger officers on the means by which to reach our goals, never on the principles."

Nasser, by contrast, thought that any talk of democracy, or of a multi-party system, or of the withdrawal of the army from politics, would allow the Wafd, the Muslim Brothers and the other political parties to regain the ground they had lost in 1952.

In addition, although on paper Naguib appeared to wield a lot of power, being simultaneously president and prime minister, his authority was curtailed by the fact that he needed a majority vote of the RCC for any decision to be taken, and his opinion was often ignored. The offices he occupied meant that Naguib was responsible for the government's decisions, even though he rarely sanctioned or supported them, and this meant that he was increasingly becoming merely the puppet of others. Eventually, Naguib presented Nasser, by now the real power in the RCC, with an ultimatum: either he was given real power, or he would resign.

On 25 February 1954, the RCC announced Naguib's resignation as president, saying that Naguib was "demanding absolute authority, which is not acceptable." Street protests brought Naguib back to power the next day, but despite mass support and his reappointment, Naguib's days in power were numbered. Though reinstated as president on 26 February, Nasser now became prime minister and RCC chairman, Naguib's office therefore becoming largely ceremonial. Nine months later, Naguib refused to continue the charade, and on 14 November he stepped down for the last time, this time into a life of dispossession and oblivion.

In old age and frail health, Naguib continued to support Nasser's goals, but he was angered by the injustice and humiliation he had suffered at Nasser's hands. According to Khaled Mohieddin, chairman of the Tagammu' Party and Naguib's colleague on the RCC, had the Revolution failed Naguib "would have paid the heaviest price because he was the public leader of the movement."

In retrospect, Mohieddin believes that Naguib was unjustly treated, especially in light of the risks he had taken by publicly announcing that he was the leader of the Free Officers group in the early days of the Revolution. "But in politics, there are always victims, and he was one of them," Mohieddin said.

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