Riyad Sami: March is the cruellest month
A close associate of Egypt's first president, Riyad Sami was Mohamed Naguib's press bureau secretary for 28 months before Naguib was deposed. Only recently did he resolve to open up his treasure trove of information concerning this brief but significant episode in modern history. At 90, Sami says that, over half a century, it has been interesting to watch political figures who, having witnessed those times, kept their mouths firmly shut or deliberately altered the truth, whether to protect their posts or because, like him at an earlier period, they feared for their lives. It is particularly enjoyable to speak in retrospect, he says, and with such insights.
Interview by Sahar El-Bahr
Riyad Sami graduated as an army officer in 1942; and he still has the sharp features and firm demeanour of a military man. His first experience came with the Palestine War of 1948, when he was decorated for his bravery: superiors found more than 100 bullet holes in the windscreen of the vehicle he had been driving and Sami himself seriously injured. But it wasn't until the end of 1950 that he met Mohamed Naguib (1901-1983) -- at the Mustafa Kamel Military Hospital in Alexandria, where Sami went to see his brother. "The doctor," he recounts, "said my brother needed warm water which could be found next door, in the room Naguib happened to be occupying at the time. Already Naguib was well known for his bravery during the war, when -- very unusually for a lieutenant -- he led the front ranks and was injured three times. On one occasion the bullet penetrated his chest to his back, just below the heart. It was all but deadly." That moment of recognition bore little evidence of the indelible link to come, however. By 26 July 1952, Abdel-Hakim Amer had appointed Sami the first press officer of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC): "He told me my task was to receive complaints from citizens and establish good relations with the press." But within a few months, on orders from Naguib himself, Sami left the RCC to work as his own press secretary.
"I ran into Amer and Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the corridors of the RCC headquarters. While I greeted them, Nasser told me, 'What's going on, Riyad? Why is it that you want to leave us?' So I said, 'Naguib asked me to work with him. What choice do I have?'..." It was at this point, in Nasser's tone, that Sami first suspected disloyalty to Naguib, then RCC head and soon to be president of the republic; the suspicion was to fit in with Sami's growing feeling, in the next year or so, that while Naguib truthfully upheld the initially democratic spirit of the revolution, Nasser, Amer and other RCC members were beginning to seek power for their own persons. Sami recalls Naguib's relations with the RCC as being particularly tense: "It was not easy for someone of his generation and status to deal with low- and medium-rank officers who belonged in different corps of the army, no less than 12 of them, many of whom he'd had absolutely no connection with prior to the revolution." One difficulty concerned the fact that each of these officers had a different set of priorities and a different standpoint altogether. Naguib, whom many of them regarded as little more than a figure head, was hard pressed to instill a sense of unity in the ranks. "Naguib told me he tried to bring their ideas and attitudes closer together," Sami elaborates. "A task difficult in the extreme. In many cases," and here he enunciates his words for emphasis, "he had to accept their decisions against his will, to maintain the welfare of the state." This idea of going along with undemocratic practices or abrupt policies in order to preserve the unity of the state even despite his better judgement is a recurrent theme where Naguib's career is the focus of attention. Nasserists have pointed to the tendency as proof of the fact that Naguib was but a puppet deployed by the revolution's true heroes in order to imbue their endeavour with the status he enjoyed, while others -- supporters of the deposed president, regard it in historical context as justifiable behaviour -- the only thing a true democrat would have done.
One notable incident was the Kafr Al-Dawwar Textile Works strike, which resulted in the summary execution of two leaders -- to set an example for workers throughout the country. It was the exact opposite of what the revolution set out to do, and Naguib's view, according to Sami, was "Mercy above justice". But the executions took place all the same, something in which he concurred. Naguib could not stand up to Nasser's "cunning secrecy", Sami asserts. "With Nasser as with other members of the RCC, the relationship was largely speculative. Nasser never revealed his intentions, and Naguib never knew how to react to him anyway." On one occasion in 1953, Sami was with the two of them in a car, heading to the Officers Club in Zamalek, when Nasser told Naguib that an LE15,000 "emergency sum" had been allocated to each RCC member -- to which Naguib reacted very negatively, refusing the money and taking issue with Nasser for coming up with such a plan. For his part, Nasser instantly retracted his statements, saying they were meant as a test to confirm Naguib's integrity. According to Sami, Naguib realised from day one that Nasser would endeavour to be the mastermind, controlling the RCC by offering members ministerial posts; only Anwar El-Sadat, thanks to his political experience and flexible manoeuvring, managed to escape Nasser's grip. Indeed Gamal Salem reportedly explained his abuse of Naguib when the latter went to visit him in hospital saying, "Forgive me, president. It was the devil who provoked me," a reference to the person of Nasser. So Naguib told Sami towards the end of his life.
Naguib's relations with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) were somewhat more conciliatory than Nasser's; according to Sami, he was eager that they should participate more actively in political life but they refused to cooperate unless a number of them were appointed ministers -- a proposition Naguib himself rejected. In 1954, indeed, Sami was despatched to the MB leader Hassan Hodeibi to ask him what his stance was on the idea of bringing back the parties and parliament. Would Hodeibi support Naguib on the issue? Hodeibi's answer was vague, Sami recalls: "'In that case, a different set of circumstances will determine our stand.' When I relayed this to Naguib, he said it was the kind of answer he was expecting. What elections would have meant for the MB is that their main rival, Wafd, would come back to power. They obviously didn't want that, so they didn't aspire to democracy. Actually," Sami goes on, "I admired Naguib for his democratic spirit, which came across in even the most minor dealings with people, in the way he treated the working class, for example." Even then, he could tell the difference between Nasser and Naguib from the way they answered journalists' questions. "It was clear they had different approaches to running the state." Nor did it take long before the first clash -- on 25 February 1953, when Naguib resigned in protest of unconstitutional practices and the tendency of RCC members to ignore his decrees. "I remember on 24 February I was with Naguib preparing for his upcoming visit to Sudan on 28 February. He had just asked me to put together some documents and gifts when he found out from the military secretary that RCC members had convened a meeting without even notifying him. Then he spoke with RCC member Gamal Salem, asking politely why he had not been notified, and Salem bluntly insulted him in response." The next day, the director of the German News Agency made a passing statement Sami was never to forget: "If someone wanted to kill Naguib, they would not do it looking him in the eye. They would have to stab him in the back." It was after demonstrations broke out in protest of Naguib's resignation that the Egyptian radio, on 27 February, announced that Naguib had been brought back to power "to maintain the unity of the state".
An unforgettable day: Sami was with Naguib at his home in Hilmeyet Al-Zaitoun; and within an hour of the broadcast, which was made at 6am, some 50 journalists stormed the premises; the telephone rang on and on. Sami remembers Naguib's one-storey, four-room house as being simple and devoid of luxury. The sight of Naguib in it, at the height of his power and popularity, acquired particular poignancy in the light of events to come. Shortly before his death in 1967, following defeat before Israel, Naguib confided in Sami that he regreted not having seized the opportunity then and there, when he had the support of both the public and the army and other RCC members were weaker than they would ever be again. He did not want to risk "the unity of the army"; he did not believe in sheer power. It was on 5 March 1953 that Naguib's tragedy climaxed, when he issued decrees stipulating the reinstitution of parliament and that political parties resume their activities and the press its freedom. "RCC members felt that democracy would be a threat to their posts; and they gave the director of the Labour Union an LE10,000 bribe to incite the workers to demonstrate against it, chanting slogans like, 'Down with the parties', 'No parliament for us'..." For two weeks just after that, Naguib was seriously ill. "I fell ill," Sami remembers him saying, "and democracy fell with me." In that period, as Naguib later told Sami, RCC members forged his signature as to pass presidential decrees behind his back. It was also during that period that the decision was made to remove Sami from his post as press secretary for Naguib. "If you accepted it," Sami responded, with resignation, "so will I."
The next day Sami went to see Amer, who "swore" it was nothing personal, "nothing against you", explaining that he was to find out why the decision was made in due course. "You have been close to me," Amer told Sami, "and you always will be. It was part of a campaign to dispense with Naguib's closest aides," as Sami later realised. "And Naguib was not the kind of person who would mobilise secret support against members of his own RCC. He believed in transparency and honesty above all else." No sooner had he secured his position than Nasser ordered Amer to place Naguib under house arrest at a villa in the Cairo suburb of Marg, where he spent the rest of his life. And it was at that point that Sami left the RCC altogether, working as a reserve officer in Maadi: "I left my home in Zamalek, which was near the RCC headquarters, and lived in a deserted villa at the end of the Pyramids Road where I even cut off the telephone line. I was terrified of Naguib coming up in any conversation: why I stopped working with him. Because Nasser was autocratic and would ruthlessly persecute his opponents. I was terrified of being spied on, even by my closest friends. And the worst part is that my fear wasn't even unfounded."
In 1956, Amer offered Sami a post as head of the press office of the army's public relations department; he accepted. Four years later he enrolled at the Cairo University's Faculty of Arts to obtain an MA in journalism; and, on requesting it of Amer in 1964, started working as an advisor at the Foreign Ministry, where he eventually became ambassador. He spent the period 1968-1972, during which relations with Jordan were cut off, as "attaché in charge" in Amman, witnessing Black September and the Rogers Initiative. Later he was Egyptian ambassador to Albania. But all through this time Sami regularly visited Naguib in Marg; and through conversations with the former president learned of his disgraceful treatment: how he was abducted just before the 1967 War and released shortly afterwards, and subjected to abuse in the interim. A year later Naguib's son Ali, by now a resident of Germany, died in an unexplained and somewhat suspicious car accident. After the body was conveyed to Egypt, Naguib was not allowed to see it nor receive condolences, which were banned anyway. Another son was to die in Naguib's lifetime. His youngest, Youssef, died in obscurity a few years ago. It is a well known fact that both Naguib's children and their offspring have lived in poverty and obscurity. To this day, Sami insists, Naguib is still denied the honour he deserves. And the saddest part of the fact is that so many important people who knew he deserved it have kept quiet.
A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF MOHAMED NAGUIB:
Born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1901, Naguib followed in the footsteps of his father, an officer in the Egyptian army, joining the Military Academy in 1917 and serving in over 25 different departments of the army. His mother was born and bred in Sudan. Having obtained his BA in law and an MA in political economy, he completed his PhD, also in law, in 1931 -- a task that took him to England. He was fluent in English, French, Italian, German and Hebrew as well as Arabic. He has written numerous books, most of which are autobiographical.
photo: Mohamed Wassim