May 9, 2017

1954. Revolutionary Egypt Reclaims the Land

Nasser's Reforms
Bill Downs (right) with his wife Roz at the Suez Canal during a visit to Egypt in 1954. Downs was the CBS Rome correspondent from 1953 to 1956
Bill Downs sent this script to CBS in New York along with footage taken during his trip to Egypt in 1954.
Bill Downs

CBS Cairo

November 27, 1954

The enclosed Masraff-Downs footage can be used in several ways. As a news feature, the land reclamation story is picturesque and interesting as one phase of the new Egyptian regime. The footage on the British evacuation of the Suez zone I hope provides a new angle on an old story which could be used either as spot news or as part of a general feature on the Nasser revolution.

I am now sweating out the sound-on-film interview with Colonel Nasser for prospective year-end use, but portions of this interview (if it comes off) could be inserted.

Actually, what I had in mind was a kind of progress report on the Egyptian revolution after more than two and a half years. I thought that American Week might be interested. Anyway, the footage will be good to have in the bank because this part of the world seems destined to remain in the news for a long time to come.

The following is a suggested script around which a story could be built. [Archak] Masraff is submitting a brief log . . .


In July 23, 1952, a group of young Egyptian army officers moved into the nation's confused, corrupt, and chaotic political situation and kicked out playboy King Farouk, banished the aristocracy, seized lands, confiscated unexplainable bank accounts, suspended the parliament in the name of internal security, and proclaimed Egypt's first "revolution" of modern times.

In fact, the Nile Valley can claim to be the home of political revolution. The first public uprising the world ever experienced was some five thousand years ago against King Cheops, the man who built the Great Pyramid.

Today's Egyptian revolutionary government is run by the so-called Revolutionary Command Council, a score of young military men most of whom are under forty years old. As you know, their administration has been torn by internal disputes, by jealousies and disagreements. And a few weeks ago the banished underground Moslem Brotherhood attempted to assassinate the head of the government, Premier and Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser.

A series of treason trials is now underway as a result of this attempt, and Egypt's controversial president, General Naguib—once the front-man for the Revolutionary Council—was deposed of his presidential office and placed under house arrest for his alleged connection with the death plot.

These are internal, administrative, and political problems of Egypt's revolution which still plague its leaders. The fanatical Moslem Brotherhood still proclaims that Colonel Nasser is a doomed man and that he will be killed. But whether the Command Council survives or not, the revolution already has started to change the face of Egypt.

It might be said that the success of a revolution can be judged by two criteria. First, whether the new government can get the recognition of other foreign governments.

On this point, the Nasser regime has been eminently successful. On October 19, after more than three years of negotiating and bitter fighting in the Suez Canal zone, the revolutionary government and the British signed a historic document ending some three hundred years of English domination of the Nile Valley. It's a complicated arrangement pledging Egypt to maintain the Suez bases and make them available to the Western Allies in the event of another war. But from the Egyptian point of view the important thing is that, at long last, British troops are moving out of Egypt. Famous regiments such as the Welsh and Scots Guards are already rehearsing their famous parade step for the time early next year when they return to London's Wellington barracks and take up their posts guarding Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace.

British contractors will stay on to run and maintain a complicated machinery which keeps the Suez Canal open, but most of the military installations now will be manned by units of the Egyptian army.

The British soldiers are withdrawing with dignity and unconcealed joy. And behind them they leave lonely little camps such as one north of Ismailia near the banks of the canal. Company streets deserted, the familiar litter of boxes, newspapers, and jerrycans—everything useful or precious to the British Tommies have been carried off, except a sign on a latrine which says "Officers Only." And like the caravans of old, the British are folding their tents and silently stealing away.

The second universal test of a revolution and its success might be called the internal one. Just how does the revolutionary regime go about correcting the conditions which precipitated the revolution in the first place? There are those who say that Premier Colonel Nasser and his colleagues are moving too slowly in this field.

However, all agree that no government could, in two years, correct the neglect and ignorance of fifty centuries. The contrast can best be seen in Cairo. Modern automobiles battle in traffic alongside the most primitive transport. Women in the latest Paris fashions stroll the streets alongside their veiled sisters. Modern apartment buildings house the fortunate few while a vast majority barely exist in slums and hovels.

Egypt lives by the Nile. Some twenty-three million people depend upon its waters to cultivate some six million acres of land. The Nasser regime is planning a program of water conservation, industrialization, and soil reclamation, a system of dams and canals which they hope eventually will expand the Nile waters to irrigate a million and a half more desert acres.

This is the brand new village of Om Saber in the brand new province of El Tahrir. Tahrir, which means liberation, is in the desert on the western side of the Nile Delta some sixty miles north of Cairo. When the reclamation project is finished, the young agronomists and engineers of the revolutionary regime hope to have 600 thousand more acres of the desert in bloom.

To achieve this goal, two things must be done. A canal connecting with the Nile must be dug through the area, and even the ancient camel, which incidentally is becoming technologically unemployed in the new Egypt, is being used to help.

The other problem is to lower and level the desert and cut sub-canals to receive the water. The engineers boast that this is an entirely Egyptian project financed by their own money. They purchased American equipment to do the job. The work is hot and dusty.

These infant trees will be the park of Om Saber. It's a veteran's housing project as well as a land reclamation job. Ex-Egyptian G.I.'s—230 of them—will be moved into the two-room apartments. They all must be under twenty-seven years of age and be able to read and write and to farm the land. Eventually each will have ownership of about five acres. Their children will go to the official school and they will be taught the latest methods of farming.

Directing all of this are a group of volunteers, young men who are intent on making the experiment work. This year these men succeeded in getting the first crop out of the new land—watermelons and tomatoes.

Om Saber and the Liberation province now has about it the atmosphere of a pioneer American town of the West—except for the first completed buildings: the mosque and the filling station.

But the problems are tremendous. The fellahin who are building the new province will not qualify to live here, but perhaps their children will. The old Egypt still clings in many ways to its ancient life and customs, but the hope of the new Egypt lies in the arrival of the twentieth century here, which is the aim of the young men around the Nasser regime. Whether this can be done by these men—whether they will live to do it—cannot be foretold. But the energy and the intelligence and ambition is here. For the first time in centuries, the animals will not live with the family. They will plant and market on a cooperative basis. And, said one official, no mother-in-laws will be allowed residence here. "We want to make it a utopia," he explained.

They already have reclaimed ten thousand acres by this expensive and difficult method. Another thirty thousand will be reclaimed within the next few months.