Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1173, (21 - 27 November 2013)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1173, (21 - 27 November 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Remembering the first president

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria has recently launched a website dedicated to Mohamed Naguib, Egypt’s first president after the 1952 Revolution, writes Rania Khallaf

Mohamed Naguib
Mohamed Naguib
Al-Ahram Weekly

Commenting on his book entitled Kuntu Raaisan li-Masr (I was Once Egypt’s President), the late president Mohamed Naguib said that “I could never have imagined that I would live to see this moment, when I am able to look at my own autobiography before it makes its way to the printers. I believe the book will live longer than I have lived and that it will cause more controversy than has happened during my life.”
A recently launched website on Naguib also aims to create debate on the former president, one of the most tragic and controversial political figures in Egypt’s modern history, some 25 years after his death and in the middle of the national debate on the future president of Egypt.
This website, the brainchild of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina which is tasked with preserving documents relating to Egypt’s modern and contemporary history, was launched last month within the framework of its Special Projects Department (SPD). It aims to document the political and personal life of Mohamed Naguib, Egypt’s first president after the July 1952 Revolution that ended the monarchy and turned the country into a republic.
The inauguration of the new website was also celebrated last month at the Bayt Al-Sinnary, a house museum in the Cairo district of Sayeda Zeinab. A two-week photography exhibition covering different aspects of Naguib’s political and personal life was held to commemorate the event, and the SPD has also published a booklet on the former president’s life in a limited edition, to be followed by another for the general public before the end of this year.  
Born on 19 February 1901 to a strict and courageous father who was an officer in the Egyptian army in Sudan and who had taken part in the struggle against the Mahdi uprising, Naguib was raised in Sudan and lived there until he finished his military studies in 1917. He is still a popular figure in Sudan, and is widely seen as a symbol of unity between the two countries.
As a young officer, Naguib defied his British commander and secretly travelled to Egypt when the 1919 Revolution erupted. In 1924, he settled permanently in Egypt, where he commenced his studies at the Faculty of Law, being awarded a degree in 1927.
The new website on his life includes eight sections, each dedicated to a different field and including Naguib’s own autobiography, media coverage of his time in power, documentary materials, audiovisual records, speeches, and various press archives.
The SPD responsible for the site is attached to the Bibliotheca’s central services and projects sector. According to Amr Shalabi, manager of the Mohamed Naguib documentation project, the mission of the department is the documentation of Egypt’s modern and contemporary history.
The Egypt’s Contemporary History Unit (ECHU) documents Egypt’s history starting with the time of Mohamed Ali in the early 19th century and ending with the period of late president Anwar Al-Sadat, Shalabi explained. Naguib’s website is full of interesting information that allows readers to reconstruct a picture of Egypt during his time.
Events are viewed objectively, important since there were many attempts to blacken Naguib by the other members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) that carried out the 1952 Revolution. “After the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to assassinate Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Mansheya Square in Alexandria, Nasser seized the opportunity of retaliating against the Brotherhood and managed to topple Naguib, accusing him of supporting the group,” reads one of the documents.
“On 14 November 1954, the Revolutionary Command Council issued a decree discharging Naguib of all his presidential and ministerial responsibilities. He was then placed under house arrest in his modest apartment in Ain Shams in Cairo,” the document continues.
According to Naguib himself, “during the long years when I was under house arrest we were not allowed to receive guests. When I finally got permission for these, an officer had to attend to listen to all the conversations. We got used to hearing bullets being fired by the officers outside at night, in order to scare my children.”
“We had to keep the windows closed during the hot summer days to avoid harassment. I wrote dozens of letters to Abdel-Hakim Amer [one of the members of the RCC] to complain, but in vain.” Such quotations from Naguib’s autobiography, available on the web for the first time, reveal many details publicly for the first time and provide a great opportunity for the younger generation as well as for researchers to learn more about this critical phase in Egypt’s modern history.  
“Documenting the events impartially is one of the main features of the SPD’s job. Every historical phase has its negative and positive aspects, and our duty is to report the events objectively,” Shalabi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The ECHU initiated its work in 2006 with a site about the rule of Sadat. “However, we had to make even more efforts on the website dedicated to late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser because of the huge number of documents that were available,” Shalabi said.
Assisted by Hoda Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the former president’s daughter, researchers gathered rare documents and pictures relating to the political and personal life of the former president who ruled Egypt for over 18 years.
“In terms of numbers, we have managed up to now to collect some 1,360 speeches, 59,550 pictures and 1,212 documentary films,” Shalabi said, adding that “Nasser’s period was very rich in significant political events both locally and internationally. As a result, we have collected documents in different languages, reflecting the world’s views at the time.”
Which of the institution’s sites is the most popular, one might ask. According to Shalabi, “each site has a specific period when hits are notably high. For instance, in the month of October, which commemorates the 6 October Victory, there are more hits on Sadat’s page. But in July, which sees the commemoration of the 1952 Revolution, there tend to be more people wanting to read about Nasser.”
Shalabi said that the Bibliotheca aimed to start documenting the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak in five years’ time. “We are going to deal with Mubarak as a political figure who ruled Egypt for 30 years, mentioning the advantages and drawbacks of this critical period in Egypt’s contemporary history,” he said. “The most exciting work I have personally been involved in was in the site dedicated to Sadat, which was launched in 2009 by Fawzi Abdel-Hafez, the president’s former secretary,” he added.
Along with the website, the SPD has published a book entitled Al-Sadat raaisan or “President Sadat”. The book, published in 2009 and compiled by Khaled Azab and Shalabi, is a review of the president’s life over 11 years from 1970-1981. The first edition was sold out even at the relatively expensive price of LE250, and a second edition will be published this year.
Along with the website, a permanent museum dedicated to Sadat has been established in a 250-square metre space at the Bibliotheca. It includes items given to Sadat by other world leaders and personal items.
“In my capacity as museum manager, I met with Mrs Jihan Al-Sadat, the former president’s wife, several times. At one of these meetings she walked into the hall carefully carrying something in her arms, saying that she intended to donate it to the museum’s collection.”
“‘I am going to donate something very dear to my heart to the museum, something that belonged to my husband,’ she said, and it turned out to be the military uniform that Sadat had worn on the day of his assassination in 1980,” Shalabi added, saying that this day would be engraved in his memory for life. “Many visitors to the museum stand gazing at this uniform when they visit it. Many of them have tears in their eyes,” he added.
Returning to Naguib, the country’s first president, he ruled Egypt for only one year starting from June 1953, the date when the monarchy was officially ended and Egypt was declared a republic, to late in 1954 when he was relieved of his duties. Fans of the new site dedicated to Naguib have already reached more than 10,000, a large number in the four months that it has been online, with the website’s Facebook page also helping to increase this number.
“Naguib is a political figure who has been sometimes wrongly judged by historians and politicians,” says one comment on the Facebook page. Many of those leaving comments also express their sadness at the tragic end of Egypt’s first president and the humiliation he faced after his arrest and up until his death in 1982.
“When searching for documents pertaining to Naguib, I found that there had been an apparently intentional media blackout about him, with news of Naguib’s one year in office having been removed or suppressed by other RCC members. At the same time, the news of Naguib’s doings as president, for example his tours of Egypt, was very concise, especially if we compare it to the lavish news coverage later given to the doings of Nasser,” Shalabi said.
“It was hard for researchers to find documents about Naguib. However, we managed to collect 97 speeches and around 1,000 pictures, as well as many important documents,” Shalabi said, adding that these had been taken from local and foreign media outlets, among them the Cairo magazine Al-Musawwer and the UK Times newspaper.
At the same time, many associates of the late president had hastened to donate their collections of news items, books or pictures. The families of Field Marshal Abdel-Ghani Al-Gamasi, minister of defence in 1974, and General Mohamed Sadek, minister of defence in 1971-1972, had provided many significant documents and pictures, for example.
“We found pictures of Al-Gamasi with Naguib together at official events. One such picture was taken in 1953, when an airplane had crashed in Cairo and Naguib had gone to inspect the incident. This was a unique picture, as Al-Gamasi was a very young officer at the time,” Shalabi said.
The websites of the three presidents look quite similar, with the sepia colour used giving users the impression that they have gone back hundreds of years in time. This effect gives the impression of being separated from the present, however, allowing viewers to lose themselves in history and letting them learn things of which they were almost certainly previously ignorant.
“We are a scholarly organisation, and we are keen on presenting the websites in a scholarly fashion,” Shalabi commented. “It is true that they look a bit old-fashioned, however, and we may insert some new features like chat boxes or comment bars. I think we are going to insert more tools in future, especially on the Sadat website.”
“Work on the sites is also ongoing, and we are still working on them, adding new data and locating new resources. We are going to add a new section to the Naguib site, for example, entitled ‘Phases in Mohamed Naguib’s Life’, which will tackle other aspects of his life besides the presidency. I believe that many of his fans do not know that he was one of the heroes of Palestine War in 1948, for example, and others may mistakenly believe that he was a member of the Brotherhood, though this is totally wrong,” Shalabi said.
Could a competition be arranged for the best research tackling any aspect of Naguib’s character, or could an annual historical prize even be established by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina? Shalabi supported the idea, saying that this would “encourage researchers to start an objective debate on this already controversial and dramatic character”.

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