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EGYPT: Exit Dancing

4 minute read

Among the dozen passionate young army officers who preside over Egypt’s 19 millions, none could be more temperamental or more troublesome under stress than sleek, slight Major Salah Salem. One of the original handful who plotted the overthrow of fat, frolicsome King Farouk, Salem had the lithe grace and purring charm of a cat, and like a cat, he could spit venomously if his fur was stroked the wrong way.

Soon after the coup that established Colonel Nasser (nominally, second-in-command to General Mohammed Naguib) as Egypt’s real boss, a delegation of Sudanese came to call on the new dictator.

Too busy to see them himself, Nasser asked Sudan-born Major Salem to take care of the visitors. From that moment on, Salem, then 31, took full charge of all affairs concerning the Sudan, a vast million-square-mile colony itching to break the bond that for the past 56 years has bound it to the joint control of Great Britain and Egypt.

On a visit to a jungle village in South Sudan, Salem unabashedly whipped off his pants and, clad only in underdrawers, joined a host of naked natives in a wild tribal dance. Delighted picture editors the world over promptly dubbed him “the dancing major,” and British diplomats, who lost out in the Sudan, pointed to the picture as the kind of thing they would never stoop to do: colonies may be lost but never one’s dignity.

Leave of Absence. In time, Salem also became Nasser’s propaganda minister. The dancing major insisted on calling his own tune, and as a result, he was in fairly constant trouble with his boss. Once on a diplomatic visit to Iraq, Salem impulsively waved aside all Egyptian objections to a pact between Iraq and its neighbors, Syria and Jordan. Egypt’s closest ally, King Saud of Saudi Arabia, promptly raised a howl of protest, and Nasser hastily sent Salem off on a “leave of absence.” He flew into a fit of temperament that only his older brother, Wing Commander Gamal Salem, the Deputy Premier, was able to smooth over. Again, at a diplomatic conference in India, he became so annoyed at the protocol that denied him a place beside Nasser that he pointedly passed up one official function, and was later discovered by Nasser sulking alone in his automobile.

Even his success in the Sudan began to turn sour. Premier El Azhari, elected with Salem’s backing on a platform of eventual union with Egypt, underwent a change of heart and began hinting that complete independence for the Sudan might be even nicer. Salem was furious. When Premier Azhari went to Cairo last July to celebrate the anniversary of Egypt’s army revolution, Propaganda Minister Salem forbade even the mention of his name in the papers. Azhari went home, complaining about Salem’s insults.(“We were ill-treated. If we had represented a foreign power, the treatment we received from our hosts would have made us break off diplomatic relations”), and began to campaign openly for independence for the Sudan.

One Down. Two weeks ago, with the black soldiers of southern Sudan in open revolt against their Moslem officers from the north, Egypt’s revolutionary council met in Cairo to discuss the problem. Their consensus: Salem had better stop antagonizing El Azhari and his followers. Abristle with anger, Salem offered his resignation. Harassed Colonel Nasser told him to calm down and “take a vacation..” Salem huffed off to sulk in a rest-home.

Last week, still operating under the wraps that Major Salem had taught them to expect, Cairo newspaper editors got an official government bulletin with strict instructions not to print it on their front pages. The bulletin said simply: “The Revolutionary Command Council has decided to accept the resignation of Major Salah Salem.”

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