Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian heroes of unity

It is time to rehabilitate Egypt’s first president Mohamed Naguib as a hero of Egyptian unity, writes Yassin El-Ayouty


Al-Ahram Weekly

In the Nile Valley, there have been at least two heroes of unity: One has been celebrated since 3100 BCE, while the other has been ignored since 1954 CE. History can be kind to some great leaders, yet unkind to other similarly great leaders.

In Egypt, there was the pharaoh Narmer (Mina) who united the two geographical parts of Egypt: The Delta in the north and the Valley in the south. Around 3100 BCE, Narmer not only established the First Dynasty, but he also brought Egypt, both Upper (meaning South), and Lower (meaning North), under one crown, his own.

The Narmer tablets depicting that historic and enduring unity are well known to Egyptians, especially those who like myself once taught the history of Egypt in Cairo. Our late Egyptology professor Ahmed Badawi drilled into our heads the name of Narmer at the University in Cairo. He even exhorted us to stop by the historic hotel called the Mina House, located until today at the foot of the Great Pyramids in Giza.

What Narmer accomplished for Egypt in regard to geographical unity, the British during their heinous occupation (1882-1954) of Egypt could not undo. Trying to create North Egypt and South Egypt (divide and rule), they utterly failed. Unity, one could assuredly say, is in Egypt's DNA.

From Narmer, a celebrated unity hero for the past 6,000 years, we move to another Egyptian hero, Mohamed Naguib, the first president of Egypt (1953-1954) who until now is largely ignored. His dream of unity, though not attained, would have brought the Nile Valley from the Mediterranean to Uganda into one proud entity with the great Nile River as its spinal cord.

Naguib's failure in accomplishing that breath-taking mission was not for lack of trying. It, as can be seen from his memoirs, was due to the Gamal Abdel-Nasser coup of 1952, with its participants then turning against one another. It boiled down to Naguib, whose mother was Sudanese, and Nasser, whose family hailed from Upper Egypt, or Near South versus Deep South. This was a historical catastrophe that changed the entire history of the modern Middle East.

The Naguib vs. Nasser split had to do with different outlooks, personal, political and geostrategic. Naguib, the fatherly face of the Nasser coup, was in favour of democracy in Egypt and of Egyptian and Sudanese unity. But Nasser, the young and photogenic face of the army rebellion against the monarchy of former king Farouk, wanted to take Egypt east to the leadership of the Arab world.

The result was the expulsion and imprisonment of Naguib, the declaration by the Sudan of its independence in 1956, the thrusting of Egypt into non-winnable Middle Eastern wars, the destruction of Egyptian democratic institutions until the revolutions of 2011 and 2013, and the unintended consequences of the growth of Islamism in Egypt, especially under late president Anwar Al-Sadat.

Returning now to the question which should haunt, if not all Egyptians, then at least those who care about Egyptian history and politics, I turn to the memories of Mohamed Naguib, published in Arabic under the title of "I was President of Egypt" (Kuntu Raiisan li Misr).

To be fair, I have no means of verification of what Naguib argues in these memoirs, except for two circumstantial pieces of evidence: The outcome of the Nasser/Naguib conflict, plus my personal knowledge of Naguib when he was alive.

I was his son’s teacher in the early 1950s at the Model School of Al-Naqrashi Pasha in the Kobba Gardens in Cairo. His character was stellar; he spoke modestly and sincerely, and he was attentive to the quality of education in post-war Egypt. He was also loved by his troops forming the Frontiers Battalions (Selah Al-Hodood). These were the reasons why the Free Officers led by Nasser in the historic coup against monarchical Egypt in 1952 chose Naguib to front the rebellion.

Without summarising the 420 pages of Naguib’s memoirs, published in various editions from 1984 to 2003, my focus here is on the junctures in the rift with Nasser whose consequences are still present today. Even within the scope of this limited material, I shall focus on the manifestations of that rift as they impacted on the destruction of the Naguib dream of unity between Egypt and the Sudan.

As an army officer and patriot who participated in the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 against the British occupation, Naguib throughout his life called himself the "son of the Nile". His maternal grandfather, Mohamed Othman Bek, was a senior army officer stationed in Khartoum in the Sudan. The Mahdi rebels in the Sudan in the late 1880s spared his life in recognition of Othman's commitment to Nile Valley amity.

Naguib's entire family lived in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, named as such by the diktat of the British occupiers of Egypt in 1882. A major stratagem of Great Britain in the Nile Valley was of a dual nature — to separate Egypt from the Sudan and to separate the Sudanese north from the Sudanese south. That divide and rule approach was premised on ethnic and religious lines: north of Malakal was "Arab and Muslim" and south of that point was "negroid and either Christian or animist."

Following in his father's footsteps, Naguib graduated from the Cairo Military Academy in 1918. As with his father, his early service was in the Sudan. That is where the members of his family still live and where his father was buried. Fondly, Naguib recalls his childhood in the Sudan in his memoirs, along with his camaraderie with the Sudanese, his mother being Sudanese.

This was a total immersion that provided Naguib with a purely Nilotic outlook that did not recognise the line of demarcation between Egypt and the Sudan. Such an outlook was deepened by Naguib early in his education in the Sudan. From Wad Madani south of Khartoum to Wadi Halfa south of the Egyptian border, his icons were Sudanese officers and educators looking for the British departure and for unity with Egypt.


After student years:Such were Naguib's experiences in the Upper Nile region (south Sudan), as he had to travel with his family to wherever his father was transferred throughout the huge expanse called the Sudan.

At that time, the Sudan was geographically the largest African country, endowed with resources including water, land, diversified agriculture, huge animal resources, and a population full of pride and passion at being Sudanese.

Orphaned at the age of 13 following his father's death at the age of 43 in Khartoum, Naguib, though impoverished, was admitted to Khartoum's Gordon College. He was an exception, as the British occupation prevented Egyptians in the Sudan from applying for admission. But Naguib’s father, though and through Egyptian, was a senior officer in the service of the then government of the Sudan.

Naguib’s student years at Gordon College were marked by his loyalty to Egypt. The sovereign in Cairo was the king of Egypt and the Sudan and not the British, a foreign occupier who saw to it that even the railroad from Cairo to Aswan would not be connected to the railroad in the Sudan.

While a student at Gordon College, Naguib's loyalty to the natural and historic unity between Egypt and the Sudan caused him to get into trouble. He refused to take down a text dictated by a British professor. In part, the text said that "Egypt is ruled by the British." Standing up in protest, Naguib was defiant. "Sir, Britain is only the occupier of Egypt. Egypt is internally self-ruled, but it was a part of the Ottoman Empire," he said. His punishment was 10 lashes. "I submitted to that degrading punishment, without even opening my mouth out of personal pride," Naguib writes in his memoirs.

Naguib was in fact an Egyptian Sudanese, not fitting in the mould of Nasser whose gaze was not south, but east. His fronting the Nasser coup and becoming Egypt's first president proved to be a painful ordeal for him. He felt that the Free Officers caused more harm to the cause of democracy and party politics than those opposed to the coup. He posited that "we dismissed king Farouk but replaced him with 13 other kings.”

He bemoaned his inability to stand up to "the increasing Nasser dictatorship." Out of disgust with the direction of the Nasser's coup, Naguib submitted his resignation to the Revolutionary Command Council made up of members of the Free Officers who had submitted to Nasser's authoritarianism. But before submitting his resignation in February 1954, he confronted the entire Council, accusing it of influence peddling, financial corruption, and other deviations, such as the establishment of "Egypt as a state ruled by the intelligence services."

His options were either to exercise his authority as president, or to resign and let Nasser have his way. One of Naguib's central complaints was that he was forced to sign off on decisions by the military command that had been issued and then brought to him afterwards for a pro forma endorsement.

Regarding the Sudan, Naguib, who felt the inner pulse of the Sudanese more than any other member of the Revolutionary Command Council, saw that the complaints voiced by the Sudanese were on the upswing and especially after the plebiscite on unity with Egypt in which the vote was seven for unity and one for independence.

Naguib was convinced that Nasser felt that "the Sudan was a burden on Egypt and should be jettisoned." One of Nasser's sidekicks was the officer Salah Salem, who advocated that "the Sudan was definitely lost," a shock for Naguib. The latter’s bottom line was that the Revolutionary Command Council had sacrificed the unity of the Nile Valley, causing protests in Khartoum where crowds chanted "Sudan for the Sudanese."

Then imprisoned until his death, Naguib bemoaned the fact that his name was expunged from schoolbooks in Egypt, that he was beaten and insulted by officers who were encouraged to disregard his prior status as a patriot, and that he was the first president of Egypt. In his memoirs, he expresses his pain at the Nasser dictatorship, the loss of the unity of the Nile Valley, and the conversion by Nasser of Al-Azhar into a mere department of religious affairs.

Naguib championed the unity of the Nile Valley. To him, this was a means of bolstering the backbone of the Arab homeland through the creation of a strong state at the geographical midpoint. He is more than deserving of rehabilitation, which would be a means of rectifying a gap in the history of modern Egypt.

If Narmer is celebrated as the unifier of Egypt after 6,000 years, so should Naguib be, since in the early 1950s he saw in Egypt the fulcrum for a larger unity.

When I was sent as legal counsel to Darfour in the Sudan in 2006 by the UN Security Council, I experienced a sudden pain at what had been lost by the destruction of the unity between Egypt and the Sudan. It was as if Naguib was whispering to me from his grave "see what has become of this beautiful land once that unity vanished."

The writer is a professor of law at New York University and the author of The Transformation of Egypt through Revolution (2015).

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