June 1, 2015

1954. The New Egypt

Post-Revolutionary Egypt Looks to Become the "Keystone of the Muslim World"
Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muhammad Naguib in 1954 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS internal memo

May 14, 1954

This report on the Egyptian situation is not as complete as I would have liked to have made it, but I spent most of my time heel-cooling the Revolutionary offices. Trying to get Nasser for an interview (and failing, although Frank Kearns may have gotten it later) took up most of my time.

The revolution, of course, transcends everything else in the nation's political life. The trouble is that the revolution is not really evident in Cairo. There are more troops about, but otherwise life goes on just about the way it did under Farouk. The big operators close to the king, the aristocracy who were engaged in the big deals (such as the kited cotton markets, etc.), are in the process of being tried. But there is no evidence that legitimate businessmen are being attacked.

The major revolutionary step thus far introduced by the Revolutionary Command Council is a significant one. It is now illegal in Egypt to own more than two hundred acres of land. This is a blow against the court favorites to whom Farouk dispensed land at will and indiscriminately. In other words, the sociological aspects of the revolution are moving carefully and slowly. Incidentally, the state compensates former landowners for their confiscated property, but it is often only token payment.

The RCC under Colonel Nasser seems to be recovering from its setback caused by the Naguib crisis. Apparently what happened was that Naguib, who originally was put into the job because of his war record, his anti-Farouk attitude, and the fact that he gave the dignity of age to the movement—he got to liking the job. He had little to do but kiss babies, yet he reacted to the personal prestige heaped upon him as a personal achievement. He demanded in an ultimatum last February 25 that the RCC give him more powers, notably over the army, and ordered that a parliament be reconstituted and the revolution—meaning the ouster of the king—be ended.

The young officers of the RCC took him at his word and kicked him out. However the public outcry was so insistent that they were forced to back down. (It's reported that at least for young officers in the RCC resigned and were only persuaded to remain serving when Nasser warned that if they quit they would be shot like deserter. No confirmation.)

So the RCC decided that if Naguib wanted to run his own show he could do so politically, but that he would not get control of the army. Consequently, Naguib was given the government. The first thing he did was order the reconstitution of the parliament, the establishment of old parties including the Wafd, and then he started releasing political prisoners from the jails. Meanwhile, all the old pro-monarchists came out of seclusion thinking the counterrevolution had said in. All the same old politicians reemerged.

All of this—plus I suspect some very smart propaganda work by the RCC—resulted in a wave of fear by the common people who had seen hope in the revolution. The pendulum swung the other way, and Naguib was out. Showing remarkable restraint considering their history, the RCC did not punish Naguib but kicked him upstairs to the presidency where his prestige, or what's left of it, is still useful—particularly among pro-Naguib army groups such as the cavalry who refused at first to go along with the new development. Most of the young officers who threatened a pro-Naguib revolt have been quietly removed from their commands, some to military missions overseas or to less sensitive areas of the country.

Meanwhile in April the RCC made a sensational announcement that they had uncovered a plot against the government set for May 1. About twenty-five persons were arrested, including military officers and some politicians. The word in Cairo when I left a week ago was that the RCC and Nasser were abandoning their kid glove policy and that these people will be tried, sentenced, and perhaps a half-dozen of them hung.

The Revolutionary Command Council is now engaged in broadening the base of their government. They are forming a national advisory council made up of civilian union leaders, bankers, economists, schoolteachers, etc. to study national problems and recommend courses of action. There are no predictions when the RCC will feel that the revolution is a success and can be turned by to the hands of the people—i.e. reconstitute a parliament. It may be a long time.

Counted as achievements of this revolution are such things as the ousting of Farouk, the land reform, the proclamation of a republic, the campaign against graft (wherein doormen at government offices expected baksheesh,) the Revolutionary tribunal or supreme court, the growing anticommunist campaign (there are signs that Nasser is planning to cash in on this issue vis-a-vis American politicos—the Communist Party is illegal in Egypt but is active). The order declaring the Moslem Brotherhood illegal has been ineffective since it is a pseudo-secret outfit anyway. The declaration that all political parties are dissolved has in effect forced all political organizations underground.

However, there is nothing on the surface yet that bespeaks of a "police state" (remember that these are surface observations made only in Cairo.) There is general disappointment in the results of the Farouk property auctions. They did not produce the money expected, and now there is some criticism that the more outstanding pieces and properties should have been put into special museums and used as tourist bait.

Economically, no one knows the exact situation of Egyptian industrial production, agricultural output, or financial security. As in so many countries around the Mediterranean, there is no such thing as a viable national economy; rather, state economics become national conspiracies designed to dodge taxes, seek favors, and make the maximum profit—although such might be a kind of usury against the state.

The RCC has recognized the importance of tourism to the nation, and there is an all-out effort to attract foreigners. One of the developments is a special branch of the more intelligent cops who form the "tourist police," as their armbands testify. It is also reported that the regulations against admitting anyone with an Israeli visa or stamp in his passport be withdrawn. The government is also proclaiming a smart tariff plan designed to entice foreign industry to Egypt.

One of the really outstanding impressions of the country is the changed condition of the military. Nasser has pledged himself to the "restoration of the honor of Egyptian arms." His revolutionary movement started among the young officers because of the graft, faulty logistics, and incompetence of the monarchy which left Egyptian soldiers to die in the Negev with bullet-less rifles in their hands. It's reported that the US turned down a request to rebuild the Egyptian armed forces because of our relationships not only with the British but also with Israel. Consequently, Egypt has hired German staff officers to teach tactics and training. There is a pseudo-secret commando force being trained by other German specialists (the report that Otto Skorzeny was in charge is apparently untrue). They also have imported German industrialists to set up their arms industry and reportedly are now turning out small arms ammunition.

But to see the Egyptian army now quartered in the former British barracks—to see their standard of uniform and personal appearance, their morale, and their drill—it's a revelation and will, if continued, be a major future factor to be reckoned with in the Middle East.

There is very little public concern or interest in Egypt regarding the dispute with Israel. The number one goal of the RCC is to get rid of the British in Suez and to establish a totally independent government. The second goal is economic stability. Sandwiched between these two policy problems are others that are being tackled such as the armed forces.

Ironically, the new Egypt may provide a diplomatic paradox for the US and the West. The establishment of a democratic republic will be welcomed ideologically by the free world, but at the same time the reemergence of Egypt as a powerful and key state in this part of the world will also create additional problems as this power makes itself felt. The targets are now Britain and Israel. Later, and no one conceals this ambition, Egypt hopes to be the keystone of the Moslem world in an alliance stretching from Morocco to possibly the Philippines.

There is general skepticism about the Moslem world over getting together to form an Islamic empire, however Egypt has the potential of becoming the head of the Moslem states of the Middle East. This potential has already concerned the Syrian and Iraqi leaders who don't like the Egyptian threat. One immediate result was the Iraqi acceptance of US arms aid. The gesture was not without significance regarding the struggle between the north and south for leadership of the Arab states. They realize their weakness, divided as they are, but thus far their jealousies and national ambitions have kept them separated—for which the Israelis thank Yahweh.