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EGYPT: A Good Man

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In Egypt last week, newsmen were getting their first chance to explore the luxurious vulgarities of ex-King Farouk’s palaces (see box). They stared incredulously at the marble, the gold, the diamonds, the pearls, the barrels of whisky, the mountains of rare coins, the statues of nudes. Outside the view was in striking contrast. The newsmen looked out over one of the world’s worst agricultural slums: the Nile delta. The peasants toiling there—like most Egyptians—live in mud huts, dress in rags and eat the bread of the poor (Egypt has two kinds of bread; the rich, white variety is available only to the rich). Three out of four own less than an acre of land, two out of three suffer from hookworm and malaria, nine out of ten are partially blind from the effects of bad water and undernourishment. Near the palace gates, beggars lay in the hot sun, too weak, sick, or hopeless to drag themselves into the shade.

The terrible contrast between the palace and the poor is the first fact of political life in Egypt, and in all the Middle East. Of such contrasts revolutions are born. Last week, Egypt was in the midst of revolution.

In six weeks, Egypt’s new regime has sent Farouk I into exile, legally abolished aristocracy; declared war on corruption, promised land reform to break up the great estates, raised the rich man’s taxes (on caviar, sport cars, wine, other luxuries), lowered the poor man’s prices for sugar and cotton cloth, abolished censorship, relaxed restrictions on foreign investments. It was a revolution of the middle class, engineered by soldiers but. broadened by the support of businessmen, professional men, office workers and students who believed they had found a leader.

Overnight, something new has come to this ancient and despairing land, something that gives a new snap to the salutes of Egyptian soldiers and has brought the new government 50,000 grateful letters—in a country where only one in six can write. For the first time in living memory, there is hope in Egypt.

The man who has roused that hope is a soldier whose name was almost completely unknown in Cairo, London or Washington seven weeks ago—Major General Mohammed Naguib (pronounced Nageeb). He is now acclaimed by his people as a savior, and by Western diplomats as the most promising figure to appear in the Middle East since Turkey’s late great Kemal Ataturk.

How It Happened. Naguib is a “strong man”—but he neither looks nor acts the part. He lives in a modest suburban house with his wife and three young sons, earns $4,000 a year, smokes cheap Toscani tobacco and drives a tiny German Opel on which he still owes three or four payments. Quiet and self-effacing, a better listener than he is a talker, he exudes an old-fashioned courtesy that echoes the prose of the Koran. How did this mild-mannered man lead a revolution in a land where corruption, disease, glaring wealth and bitter poverty are as old and as familiar as the Pyramids?

One reason is the fact that all “backward peoples” have begun to realize that poverty and inequality need not be their lot. Another reason lies in the burning sands of the Negeb desert, where in 1948 the Egyptian army was routed by the Israelis. The Egyptian troops were badly equipped, badly trained and badly led; but the defeat was taken as proof that Egypt’s corrupt ruling class had emasculated the country. Egyptian officers, recalls Mohammed Naguib, “were filled with shame . . . We were bitter that our country should be kicked into the dust of the road.” In 1950, the Palestine arms scandal broke, and the country learned that swindlers had piled up a fortune of $500,000 by selling the army dud ammunition which exploded prematurely, killing dozens of front-line soldiers. Calling themselves the “Free Officers,” a group of young Palestine veterans joined in a national protest presented to the King by the opposition parties. But Farouk took no notice. “[His] ears were as of stone,” says Naguib, “his eyes as of ice. He scorned these warnings and called their authors children.”

The Free Officers decided on a coup d’état. They drew up elaborate plans and asked Naguib, the most popular and trusted senior officer, to take command. After much soul-searching, he agreed.

The Coup. Zero hour was at 1:30 a.m. on July 23. Special duty squads seized strong points at the approaches to Cairo; jeeploads of young officers roared into town, rapped at doors and windows, and rounded up eleven generals and a battalion of sleepy colonels, including Naguib’s brother Aly, commander of the Cairo garrison. “Shall I personally inform General Aly’s wife?” a young officer asked Naguib. “Do the same as you did with the others.” Naguib ordered, and his brother was packed off to jail.*

Naguib’s intention was to purge the army and the government of corruption and take Farouk down a peg. But the more extreme members of the officers’ committee urged him to get rid of the King altogether. They were backed up by the Moslem Brotherhood, a fanatic, powerful secret society, 500,000 strong.

Even after the King was forced into exile, Naguib’s instinct was to leave politics to the professionals. To run the country and clothe the army’s decrees in decently legal dress, he chose Aly Maher, 69, a wealthy conservative with a good record as a reformer. Naguib went to great lengths to avoid the impression that he planned a personal dictatorship. He turned down the title “Farik” (Marshal), refused to move into the royal palace. Impressed by Naguib’s modesty, a Briton who has lived in Cairo 20 years said last week: “It’s incredible that out of all this corruption and hatred and hysteria there has come so good a man—a good man in every way.”

Childhood. Naguib is a good man with a soldier’s virtues. He is descended from fighters. His maternal grandfather, a lieutenant colonel, fought and died alongside Britain’s famed General Charles George (“Chinese”) Gordon, in the siege of Khartoum*; his father, Captain Youssef Naguib, marched with Lord Kitchener and a young British war correspondent named Winston Churchill to reconquer the Sudan from the Mahdi. Captain Naguib married a black-eyed Sudanese beauty who bore him nine children. Mohammed Naguib, 51, was the eldest of their three sons, born in Khartoum, but raised in the mud-walled village of Wad Medani, where his father was District Commissioner. Young Mohammed and his brothers, Aly and Mahmoud, splashed and scrapped in the germ-laden waters of the Blue Nile with the barefoot village boys, played soldiers in the muddy fields where the fellahin raised their cotton crops, and learned the timeless songs of the water-carriers :

In the pitiless glow of the shadowless sunshine,

We stand hauling water to make the field fruitful,

And when our hearts burst, there is none that will mourn us . . .

His pals called Mohammed “Ahbal” (Grind) because he so easily outdistanced them in the little classroom where they learned to chant the Koran. He redeemed himself by excelling at football and by punching his tormentors in the nose. Naguib’s father wanted him to study law or become a teacher. But Mohammed had different ideas.

One night while his roommates slept, he sneaked out of school and made his way, on foot and by paddle steamer, to Cairo, 1000 miles away. His destination: the Royal Military Academy, Egypt’s West Point. The Admissions Tribunal was impressed by his terrierlike energy, but Naguib fell an inch short of the required minimum height. Back home he performed stretching exercises after prayers, five times a day for a year. He succeeded in adding a half inch to his stature, but that still wasn’t enough (Naguib still stands half an inch short of the required 5 ft. 7 in.). But because of his intelligence and spirit, he was finally admitted. Tougher and more determined than his fairer-skinned colleagues—who made fun of his swarthiness—in less than nine months he raced through a 2½-year course in tactics, discipline, military law and history. He was commissioned Mulazim Tani (second lieutenant) of infantry at the age of 19.

Army Career. Egypt’s tiny army, a bare-bones auxiliary to Britain’s Middle East garrison, had little to offer its peacetime subalterns except barracks-room blues and $1.65 a day. Promotions came slowly for those who, like Naguib, refused to kowtow to palace lackeys. So Naguib assuaged his boredom by taking courses in law and political economy. He also taught himself to speak German, French and Italian as well as fluent English. (He is currently learning Hebrew.)

In World War II, Britain’s Desert Rats shoved aside the “Gyppos” (as they called the Egyptian soldiers) and themselves took over the defense of the Libyan frontier. Naguib was pinned behind a desk in the Adjutant General’s office.

Not until 1948 did he see combat. When the frontier squabble between the new state of Israel and the Arab League burst into flames, Naguib was against invading Palestine, not out of love for the Israelis (whom he still calls “the enemy on our eastern frontier”), but because he knew what the war would prove: that the Egyptian army was not ready for a desert campaign. “But the army was never consulted,” he says with a bitter shrug. Naguib, a brigadier, took charge of a machine-gun and infantry regiment in the Sinai desert. He was the only senior officer his troops had ever known who literally led his men. When an enemy fusillade struck down most of his company, including a captain standing at his shoulder, the only harm that came to Naguib was a bullet that smashed his pipe. “Why do you risk your life in this needless way?” asked his commanding officer. “It’s not needless,” replied Naguib. “It makes my men fight better.”

For all his luck, Naguib was eventually badly wounded. The first bullet pierced his shoulder. The second tore a gaping hole in his lung, and the Israelis, who won the battle, left him for dead. He was nursed back to health by Dr. Mahmoud Naguib, his younger brother.

Naguib has never forgotten Palestine or the men who fought with him. One day last week, while he was inspecting a military hospital, a dusky Sudanese trooper knelt as he approached, trying to kiss his hand. Naguib flung his arms round the man. Then he introduced him to everyone present with the proud words: “This is one of my boys.”

How He Runs His Show. Ever since the coup Naguib has been working 18 hours a day, bedding down at night on a shabby army cot outside his office in Abbasiya Barracks, his GHQ. He is up with the buglers (6 a.m.) in time to say his morning prayers and read a chapter from the Koran before sitting down to breakfast (yoghurt, one tomato, brown bread) and the morning papers. By 8 he is in his office—where King Farouk’s picture has been ostentatiously turned to the wall—drafting DROs (Daily Routine Orders), interviewing local commanders, dictating replies to his morning mail (1,000 letters daily). Most of the letters he answers with a picture postcard of his troops or himself with the message: “Our movement succeeded because it was in your name and at your wish . . . [It] is from you and by you and for you.”

Afternoons, he is in the field, barreling across the desert in his official Lincoln sedan, to ordnance depots and training camps. Often, when soldiers gripe about their miserable pay (10¢ a day), the commander in chief turns out his pockets and hands out all the money he has on him.

His most important job does not begin until long after dark. The Free Officers Committee, which meets each night, is the real ruler of Egypt. Its nine members, mostly captains and majors, all under 45, hammer out the policies that Naguib—and Prime Minister Aly Maher—are expected to carry out. As chairman, Naguib wields important influence. But he dares not act alone. Faced with a major question of policy, military or political, Naguib invariably comments: “I’ll have to get the committee’s opinion on this.”

Committee members keep their names almost a military secret. One of the few known personalities among them is big, burly Colonel Mohammed Rashad Mehanna, 42, who acts as liaison man between the committee and Aly Maher’s cabinet, in which he sits as Minister of Communications. A religious nationalist and supporter of the Moslem Brotherhood, Mehanna’s is the voice that urges Naguib toward an all-out dictatorship, anti-British, antiChristian, anti-Jewish. He is opposed by Wing Commander Anwar el Sadat, who urges Naguib to leave political business to those who understand it—or think they do—and to stick to the army.

So far, Naguib has managed to rein in the hot-bloods, keep the opposing factions pulling together. But a serious feud in the Officers Committee could stop Egypt’s revolution in its tracks.

Can He Hang On? The odds against Naguib are formidable. Reform in Egypt (or anywhere else in the Middle East) is not simply a matter of passing laws against sin. Corruption is not only the result of greediness among the rich; to millions, it is almost a way of life, prompted by insecurity, hopelessness, and fear of what tomorrow may bring—or take away. To sweep out corruption, as he has promised, Naguib will have to break the stubborn power of the landowning pashas, who are fighting him every inch of the way; he will also have to rebuild Egyptian society from the bottom up. The question is whether he has the skill to do it—or the time.

Everywhere he goes today Egypt’s people cheer him and call his revolution “the blessed movement.” But unless Naguib can soon produce more concrete benefits for the man in the street and in the fields, the mood may change. Naguib has ordered all parties to purge themselves. “We have had enough of corruption!” he cried. But the Wafd, Egypt’s largest and most graft-ridden party, which Naguib turned out together with Farouk, only laughed in his face and is scheming day and night to recapture power. Its big wheels, Mustafa Nahas (ex-Premier) and Serag el Din, used the magic word “purge” to get rid of their rivals, then started plotting to get rid of Naguib. Their plan is to smear Naguib as unpatriotic for failing to throw the British out of Suez and the Sudan. Naguib’s counterplan: a stiff electoral reform law, excluding men of “known dishonesty” from political office.

The Reds are also working hard against Naguib. Joining hands with other malcontents, they staged a series of wild strikes, intended to rock the new regime before it could settle down. Six thousand cotton-mill workers ran amuck, smashing their looms, burning factories, stoning the police. “Treason,” said Naguib. “The punishment is death.” Armored cars beat back the mob; nine were killed. A military tribunal tried the ringleaders for treason.

Other leaders in the Middle East have tried to do what Naguib hopes to do. Only Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, has succeeded. The press has hopefully called Naguib another Ataturk, and in some ways they are alike. Like Ataturk, Naguib is a soldier, born in an embattled frontier province (Ataturk in Salonika, now part of Greece; Naguib in Khartoum); like Ataturk, Naguib, relying on the army to uphold him, seeks to transform an ancient Moslem monarchy into a modern democratic state. But Naguib, a simpler man, lacks Ataturk’s grasp of politics, his vision, his rousing oratory; he may also lack his iron will to rule.

Nevertheless, both U.S. and British diplomats and newsmen, who have watched Naguib’s first two months as Egypt’s reluctant strong man, hope that in his own, quieter way he will succeed. Whether he does or not will ultimately depend on a big if—U.S. and British aid.

Simply to stay in power, Naguib needs arms to keep order, technical assistance to make land reform work, capital to build factories and raise Egypt’s living standards. Last month he made a bid for U.S. and British military aid. Prime Minister Aly Maher requested U.S. Point Four funds to finance a vast development program which would 1) double cotton production in the Nile Delta, 2) reclaim 3,000,000 acres of the Western Desert for cattle grazing, 3) expand industrial output. “The good that American experts could do for Egypt,” said Aly Maher, “is incalculable.”

The British have responded by lifting their embargo on arms shipments to Egypt and by announcing that they would help train Egyptian officers. But they are moving cautiously: they know that eventually Naguib will have to raise the issue of British troops at Suez and British control of the Sudan. Naguib is known to be far less hostile to Britain than the Wafd, and is believed to favor Egyptian participation in some kind of Middle Eastern defense setup. But the British are afraid that open support of Naguib would cost him popularity, since Egyptians of all parties profess to regard friendship with Britain as treason. “We’re for him, all right,” said a British Foreign Office official. “But we don’t particularly want to advertise the fact.”

The U.S. State Department is even more cautious. U.S. foreign policy has already antagonized the whole Arab world by giving aid to Israel, but the State Department still seems determined to do nothing that would offend Israel. Thought of the Jewish vote in November is an added reason for the Administration’s attitude. So far. Dean Acheson let it be known that the price of U.S. arms aid to Egypt would be 1) Egypt’s settling its differences with Israel, and 2) Egypt’s joining the Middle Eastern Defense Organization proposed by the British. Naguib might possibly favor both proposals, in private, but he cannot accept them without giving the Wafd enough propaganda ammunition to endanger his regime.

Said a shrewd U.S. observer in London last week: “However logical U.S. and British caution may appear, it does not make much sense. There is such a thing as being oversubtle, even in Middle Eastern politics. In rushing to Naguib’s side, there may be a danger that we would play into the hands of his enemies. But that risk should in any case be carefully weighed against the danger that, by lurking melodramatically in the wings and croaking encouragement, we may let pass the best chance to build along the right lines that we have yet had in the Middle East.”

* Released eight days later (but scheduled for retirement), Aly shook hands with Naguib, later observed: “Remarkable man, my brother . . . always has been.”

* Taken in 1885 by the Mahdi, an apprentice boatbuilder turned Moslem revivalist, and his fanatic host of 70,000.

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