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EGYPT: The Revolutionary

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Midnight in Cairo on the last day of August. In the Revolutionary Command Council headquarters in ex-King Farouk’s old pleasure house on the Nile, a phone rings. A big man with grizzled hair answers it.

“The Jews are in Khan Yunis,” says a tense voice. “I am ready to move now.”

The speaker is Major General Abdel Hakim Amer, commander in chief of the Egyptian army. It has been a shooting week on the Israeli-Egyptian border, and a U.N. cease-fire is pending. Sent to the Gaza area with orders that any further Israeli action is to be met by massed retaliation. Major General Amer has action to report: an Israeli armored force has just crossed the ploughed furrow dividing the two countries and is laying siege to an old British police fort five miles inside the border.

“Hold it until daylight and then call me first,” says the big man in Cairo.

By daylight, the Israelis have blasted the old police fort to rubble, killed 35 Arabs.

Amer asks permission to smash into Israel. “Don’t do it,” says the man in Cairo.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, a handsome, dedicated soldier of only 37, is the one man in Egypt who could give such an order and have it obeyed. Last week, further curbing some of his impatient lieutenants and the Moslem hotheads who would like to provoke a full-scale war with Israel, he endorsed United Nations efforts to create a buffer zone or stretch a barrier along the border dividing Israel and Egypt at the hypersensitive Gaza strip. There is an intimate connection between Nasser and The Strip. It was there that the fuse was lit to Egypt’s 1952 revolution, and it was Gamal Nasser who struck the match.

Seven years ago, Egypt, a power in the Moslem world, had come sweeping across the Sinai Peninsula to throttle the infant Israel at its U.N. birth. But decades of corruption in palace and government paid off disastrously in lack of ammunition, inferior arms and cowardly officering. Captain Nasser’s unit was surrounded at Faluja, a few miles from Gaza. He saw his commanding officer wringing his hands and crying: “The soldiers are dying! The soldiers are dying!”

Dug in under Israeli fire, Nasser, as he later wrote, reflected: “Here we are in these foxholes, surrounded, in danger, thrust treacherously into a battle we were not ready for our lives the playthings of greed, conspiracy and lust which have left us here weaponless under fire.” Said a comrade, “Gamal, the front is not here, it is in Cairo.” Nasser turned to the front, plotted a revolution, toppled a king and rose to be ruler of Egypt’s 22,500,000, the most powerful, most energetic and potentially most promising leader among the long divided, long misled Moslems of the Middle East.

Royalty’s Contribution. Last week Premier Nasser’s revolution was three years and two months old, and the front was still in Cairo. With the army apparently strongly behind him, Nasser is more firmly and more personally in control than ever. To the street mobs, often the governors of Egyptian affairs if not of their own hapless circumstances, he has assumed the proportions of a great leader who persuaded the resented British to withdraw from Egyptian soil. He has promoted sweeping reforms in Egypt’s administration. Under a program of land reform, some 660 sq. mi., or about 5% of the arable land of Egypt, most of it taken from the royal family, are being redistributed among the fellahin. He has become a prominent, sought-after guest in diplomatic conclaves across the world.

But the whirlwind enthusiasms of the revolution’s early months are expended. Nasser’s regime sits uneasily on its base of youthful inexperience and military dictatorship. There still has been no appreciable improvement in the common lot of the Egyptian people, one of the poorest, sickest, most abused on earth. Nasser has not yet been able to win from the International Bank a loan to finance a huge irrigation and power dam across the upper Nile, which Egypt sorely needs to correct the natural imbalance that now jams all but 1% of Egypt’s fertile millions (the birth rate will double the population in the next 50 years) along the Nile. While neutralizing some enemies, he has made scores more—the defunct Wafdist politicians, the landlords, the diehard followers of fat Farouk, the Moslem Brotherhood, the handful of Egyptian Communists (perhaps only 3,000), and some resentful officers of his own army.

Flashy dips into the diplomatic big time at New Delhi, Rangoon, Bandung have not obscured a year of setbacks in the foreign field. Nasser’s hope of promoting a defense union among Arab states fell apart when, with U.S. blessing, Iraq signed a treaty with Turkey, a NATO partner. Only one other Middle East country, Saudi Arabia, has joined in Nasser’s counterplan for a strictly Arab defense alliance. His plan to attach the Sudan after the retirement of the British was frustrated by a revolt in the south, the obstinacy of the northern Sudanese and the ineptitude of one of his chief lieutenants.

An Unholy Mess. The shortcomings and setbacks have disappointed those—both inside and outside Egypt—who began to talk of a new Ataturk when the dashing young soldier sprang up from obscurity and took charge. Yet in Western capitals, Nasser is still looked upon as Egypt’s best hope for decent government, a moderate among the hotheaded many who would fight Israel even at the cost of suicide, a man who perhaps some day can grow into the dominant Middle Eastern leader he aspires to be. Even in Israel, officials say privately that they would be sorry to see Nasser fall from power. “Without Nasser,” says a British Foreign Office diplomat, “Egypt will be one unholy mess, another Syria.”

The disappointments have also affected Gamal Nasser, an impatient man. They have set him to casting beyond his own regime and his own country for the causes of his troubles. “The West has decided that Egypt doesn’t count,” he grumbled recently. “Therefore, because Egypt is troublesome, they’ve decided to wreck Egypt and isolate us.” Admitting—unlike such neutralists as India’s Nehru—that Egypt and the rest of the Middle East dare not remain defenseless against Communist expansionism, Nasser nevertheless disdains any defensive handclasp with the Western powers. “We are suspicious of all the great powers,” he insists.

Nasser does not look like a man with a chip on his shoulder. He carries 200 Ibs. with the lithe grace of a big, handsome All-America fullback. His wiry, close-cropped hair is greying at the temples and thinning just above the forehead, where there is a faint scar made by a police club. He has a big, slightly hooked nose and a close-trimmed black mustache, a row of regular, white teeth and a brilliant, easy smile. His eyes are piercing and brown, and he talks quietly, gently, and has never been known to raise his voice or lose his temper. Beneath his apparent softness, there is a streak of rough, tough ruthlessness. Last week in his Cairo office, he talked quietly, but he let the toughness come through.

“We have no hostile attitude towards America,” he said. “I have always tried to build up friendly relations, only keeping in mind that these relations must not take us toward any sort of domination. But gradually, I have realized that there is always some obstacle between us, and that obstacle is Israel. America helps Israel with money and moral support, and they use the money to buy equipment to be used against us. But when we ask America to supply us with arms for defense, nothing is done.”

Alexander & Napoleon. Many Moslems have an unspeakable, uncontrollable hatred for Israel, but Nasser’s emotion is a composite of worry, envy, chagrin and wounded pride that the little nation should have licked all the Arab states and come out of it with an army twice the size of Egypt’s. “They’ll take equipment anywhere they can get it,” he claimed. “We are beginning to learn from them.” It was his way of calling attention to the report that Russia has been offering to supply Egypt with arms, no strings attached, and perhaps even to finance its dam. So far Nasser has rejected the offer. Was he thinking of reconsidering the offer? The answer was a rueful grin and a teasing shrug.

The U.S. offered arms to Nasser shortly after he came to power, but he refused to sign a mutual security pact, or to allow a U.S. military mission into Egypt, as is normally required by Congress when a key to Uncle Sam’s armory is passed out. His objection to any kind of pact with a Western power stems from the long history of alien control that began when the Egyptian booty first fell to the Persians in 525 B.C., then to the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Mamelukes, French, British—to Alexander the Great, Mark Antony, Napoleon and Kitchener. Nasser, like most Egyptians of his generation, cherishes bitter memories of the British, whose armed forces occupied Egypt for 72 years. “We have complexes in this country about some words . . . such as ‘joint command,’ ‘joint pact,’ ‘mutual defense’ and ‘mission,’ ” he says. “Our experience is that foreign pacts mean foreign domination.”

Nasser grew up in the period when resentment against the British was at its highest pitch, and the Wafd, a powerful national party, was engaged in a struggle with both King Fuad and the British, who never hesitated to intervene directly in domestic politics. Born in Alexandria, the son of a post office official, Gamal Nasser was a husky youth who played hookey from school to go to the movies, often flunked his exams. He was only 16 when he took up politics. “One day,” recalls Nasser, “I was walking down the street when I found a fight going on between the police and a lot of people. I joined the people against the police. I didn’t know what the fight was about. I was arrested. In jail I discovered that the people were the Masri el Fatat (Young Egypt). I joined up. We worked hard, and the government hated us. I stayed with them a year and then got disgusted over an embezzlement scandal.” He joined other movements, other street battles. He led a school strike and was expelled. Said his father, a strict Moslem in the old tradition: “You’ll ruin your life playing politics. You’ve failed at school. This is the result of the freedom you get.”

A Few Like Spirits. Another young man, King Farouk, who succeeded his father to the throne at the age of 17, was already showing a cynical capacity for playing one political party against another for piasters and public laughs. Politics was confined to just the top level. The only movement which could claim to have roots in the people at this period was the Moslem Brotherhood, which had grown out of the personal following of Hassan el Banna, a schoolteacher who called for better observance of Islam and its purification. The Brotherhood tapped reservoirs of religious sincerity and fanaticism, but its political horizon was limited to a passionate xenophobia. “Ya Azeez, Ya Azeez. Dahiya takhud al-Ingleez!” (O Almighty, O Almighty. Disaster take the British) was the catch cry on a million lips. The British, meanwhile, ruled pretty much as they pleased and called the Egyptians “wogs.”

Young Nasser entered the Royal Military Academy, enjoyed the orderly life and worked hard. At 20 he graduated a 2nd lieutenant, but soon discovered that the rottenness of Egyptian political life extended to the officer corps. “They were ignorant, of bad character and lived only by fawning on their superiors … I was shocked at the treatment of the soldiers.”

Nasser gathered a few like spirits together and led a protest against the bullying seniors. But World War II sent them all scurrying off to guard the numerous bridges over the Nile waterways.

Egypt was neutral, but young Farouk was suspected of intriguing with the Axis. At a critical moment in 1942 when Rommel was only 40 miles from the delta, the British, fearing treachery in their rear, surrounded the Abdin Palace in Cairo, and a tough British ambassador presented Farouk with an ultimatum: put the pro-Allied Wafd in power or be exiled. Farouk signed the order, smiling: “You will live to regret this, sir.”

Egyptian pride touched bottom. The Wafd never recovered from the charge of being a “tool of the British” and became the most corrupt of all parties. A Premier who was about to propose declaring war on the Axis was shot dead in the Senate Chamber. The Moslem Brotherhood grew to membership of 2,000,000 with secret cells (called families) and a terrorist organization. But none was so humiliated and infuriated by the Abdin Palace incident as Gamal Nasser and his proud young friends. At the Officers’ Club in Cairo a committee was formed, the first step in the Free Officers’ Movement which ten years later was to sweep Farouk and all his works out of Egypt.

Nasser began organizing the year of Abdin. “I watched the officers who came through the schools. I’d get them talking in groups. Then I’d pick the best man in the group and talk to him in private.” He married the daughter of a respectable carpet merchant, lived a quiet life. He did not look like a conspirator. Appointed to the staff college, he ran a cribbing service for those who wanted to pass examinations for staff jobs. Says he: “They were obligated to us.” Looking around for a nominal leader who would inspire respect, he found Mohammed Naguib, a pipe-smoking colonel of bluff honesty. Tacit support was given by the Moslem Brotherhood when Nasser promised the Mufti of Jerusalem that he would help out with the Arab defense of Palestine.

The Time to Act. But when the Arab defenses collapsed and the Egyptians were forced by Israeli strength to make an armistice in 1949, Moslem resentment smoldered, later flamed up. “Liberation guerrillas” attacked the British, by then withdrawn to the Suez Canal zone. Then they cut loose in Cairo, where they burned bars, restaurants, movie houses (all sinful in Moslem eyes) and hotels frequented by foreigners. Farouk’s wobbly government began to cave in and a state of emergency was declared.

The time had come for the Free Officers to act. “The original plan,” says Nasser, “was to kill Farouk and all his stooges in the palace. We had 15 groups of three officers each to do the killings. But we decided the plot was too complicated, and we called it off at the last moment. If we failed to kill the King, the country would be hurt. If we succeeded, what then? Chaos?” A few days later they learned that there was to be a cleanup of officers. “We knew that they had our names.” A plan was decided upon: 1) control of the army, 2) control of the country, 3) dismissal of the King by any means.

Says Nasser of the night of July 22, 1955:”I went from house to house giving our officers the word. My job was to convince them all that we were bound to succeed. I convinced myself in talking to them. At 11 p.m. I got word from our people in intelligence that the palace knew about the plot. I was without feeling. I was very tired. The officer asked if we should call it off and I said, ‘No, the wheel is turning and it cannot be stopped.’ ” The wheel made its full turn in the next three days. Gentle Mohammed Naguib, 51, a good front man, was made commander in chief of the army; Farouk abdicated, and his Premier resigned.

The Free Officers began cleaning up: half the old officer corps, hundreds of police and some judges were fired; others were imprisoned. The press, radio and universities were brought under control. Nasser’s young officers went into every department of government. An internal intelligence system was set up. The frantic, dizzying pace of affairs befuddled Prime Minister General Naguib. “I would like to rule the country like Gandhi, without official responsibility,” said he worriedly. He was not long for this rough game.

Seven Days Later. There was a sure way for the new regime to get a solid lease on power: get the British out of Egypt. The British, except for some of the old Empire diehards, had the good sense to see that the new regime might be healthy for Egypt and hence for the entire weak Middle East. Washington pitched in to help keep negotiations alive and moving. After hard bargaining, Nasser, who then wore the title of Interior Minister, signed with Britain the agreement ending the long British occupation of the canal zone. (Under the agreement’s gradual withdrawal clause, the British by last week had turned about half of the canal zone over to Egyptian control.) It was a momentous, street-filling, torchlight-parading triumph for the revolutionary regime, and it gave the Nasser junta fuel on which to travel for months to come. There was, however, grumbling from one sector: the Moslem Brotherhood saw betrayal of Islam in Egypt’s agreement to let the British back into Suez if Turkey is attacked—the one vague link Nasser has allowed himself to make with the West.

Seven days after the triumphal signing, Nasser faced a cheering mob in Alexandria. As he rose to make his speech a man stood up in the audience and fired eight shots at him. Nasser remained standing and all shots missed. His first cry was, “Arrest that man.” Then he stepped to the microphone: “Oh, my men, stand in your places. Oh, free men, stand. I revolted for your sake. I taught you dignity and self-respect. Oh, my citizens, my men, I brought to this country dignity and freedom, and I fought for your sons. Oh, free men, stand.” The panic died away. Egyptians stopped and turned to listen to the passionate, guttural Arabic streaming out to them from the excited, exciting man who had stood so close to death. “Raise your heads, brothers, because the days of feudalism and colonialism are past.” It was a moment, perhaps the moment of truth for Gamal Nasser; it gave him the inspiration and the chance to step from the background and assume open command.

For one thing, the attempted assassination made it possible to break the Moslem Brotherhood’s power to interfere with his aims. Six Moslem Brothers were hanged—one of the rare acts of bloodletting of the Nasser revolution. The Brotherhood’s leadership was immobilized. By a curious coincidence, it was noted that a pamphlet put out by the Brotherhood bore traces of Naguib’s hand. The genial general was asked to go, and meekly went into isolation in an expropriated palace on the Nile. Said Nasser: “He was a good man, though a simple one. He was really ignorant. Power spoiled him.”

Since then, Nasser has gradually winnowed others from his inner circle and exerted a more commanding hand over the young officers of the Revolutionary Command Council. (“The Free Officers are my parliament,” he once said of them.) In the first days of power, there were 14, and they met daily for six to eight hours to deal with problems as they arose. Today there are nine, all of them demonstrably loyal to Nasser personally. Among the departed are two said to be Communists (Yussef Siddik and Khaled Moheddine) and Abdul Moneen Amin, removed for disloyalty. Salah Salem, Nasser’s vociferous Minister of National Guidance and Sudanese Affairs, famed as “the dancing major” of the Sudan (TIME, Sept. 12), was booted out recently because he had bungled the Sudanese program—or had been picked to take the blame. Cairo buzzed with talk that others also are on the way out.

While he expands his personal power, Nasser is coming closer to the day next January when he has promised to transform his military rule into representative government and give Egyptians a parliament. Not even Gamal Nasser himself seems certain that he will keep that promise. “Throughout my life,” he confesses, “I have had faith in militarism.” The army is the only sector of power he so far has found it possible to trust, and even there he fears that unless he can provide more equipment, morale will fall and officers will weaken to subversion from the Communist left or the passion-inflaming Moslem extremists.

He is caught in a pragmatic dilemma, a revolutionary without a blueprint of dogma or a road map of ideology. “We began our revolution with principles, not a program,” he said once. “We find that sometimes we have to change our methods. I have read much about socialism, communism, democracy and fascism. Our revolution will not be labeled by any of those names . . . We are not trying to copy anybody else’s ideology. We are a country of 22.5 million; 18 million are poor farmers . . . deprived of personal liberty for 5,000 years . . . under the domination of landlords. Only when they are liberated from this will Egypt be truly free.”

If earnestness were enough—which it is not—Nasser and Egypt would be making fast progress toward that goal. The Premier himself lives with remarkable austerity in a five-room, sand-colored house inside the army compound in Cairo’s Abbasiya military district. He allows himself almost none of the personal privileges now within his means. “I did not gothere before,” he once explained to an associate who wondered why the Premier refused to go inside the fashionable Semiramis Hotel. In the first days of power he liked to wear a military bush tunic, open at the neck, with a couple of rows of ribbons and the insignia of a lieutenant colonel, but now he prefers a plain grey suit.

Few Egyptians and fewer foreigners have met the Premier’s wife who, in the Egyptian tradition, takes no part in public affairs, but devotes herself to their family: three boys and two girls. Nasser, while he smokes, has never been known to drink anything stronger than Coke. His favorite beverage is a cup of tea, a habit learned from British officers.

Impatiently, he insists that his own moral standards apply to his government, and he reacts with feeling to suggestions that this is a hopeless wish. “All right,” says Nasser impatiently, “they are corrupt; they are dishonest; they are venal. But they will be incorrupt and they will be honest!”

Another quality of Nasser’s character, somewhat disguised by the disarming candor with which he speaks of himself, is his resourcefulness. His friend, Major General Abdel Hakim Amer, put it this way: “He is very good at chess. If he tries to win, he does. He is a fox. It’s never easy to know his intentions.” Says ex-U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, who was in Cairo when the Nasser forces took over: “He’s been a plotter all his life; he’s a master at it.”

In a Hurry. It is easy to read a plot into some of Nasser’s recent moves. Cairo’s Voice of the Arabs radio pours a stream of anti-French propaganda into Morocco, and Nasser gives warm asylum to old Riff Rebel Abd el Krim, a key North African troublemaker, as well as to Jerusalem’s Jew-hating Mufti. In the Gaza strip he allows, if he does not approve, the arming and training of the Al Fedayeen commandos, teams of Palestine Arab refugees which periodically cross the border to raid Israel. At the Bandung Conference last April, where he was hailed as a conquering hero of anticolonialism, he pumped the hands of Nehru and Chou Enlai; he bartered a mass of Egyptian cotton for products from Red China. Last year, he sent a trade mission to Moscow, and next year he plans to go there himself.

But Western diplomats, though disappointed and occasionally disquieted by Nasser’s flirtations with the neutralists and worse, ascribe these moves to a mixture of pique and necessity—such goings-on help to divert domestic attention from the domestic plight.

It is but a delaying game and cannot work for long. Gamal Nasser, a shrewd young man, if not yet an altogether wise one, undoubtedly senses this, and he is dogged each day by the sensation that time and a multitude of forces are working against him. “The longer I take to do things,” he complains, “the less time I will have to accomplish them.” He is not sure where he and Egypt are going, but he is in a hurry. “I don’t think I am a dictator,” says Premier Nasser quietly. “I don’t have the character for it. I am sentimental, like all our people. But I am going on with the revolution—until I meet a better assassin.”

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