Today in Middle Eastern history: Egypt’s 23 July Revolution (1952)

Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers Movement seize control of Egypt, with lasting repercussions for the Arab world.

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Today marks the anniversary of one of the most important events in 20th century Middle Eastern history, the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy by the Free Officers Movement. This was a group of military officers ostensibly led by General Muhammad Naguib, but really led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was gracious enough to let Naguib have a short turn as Egyptian president from 1953-1954 before pushing him out and fully assuming power.

There are usually multiple factors that go into creating the conditions for a coup, especially a successful one that meets with fairly widespread public acclaim. This coup is no different. The Free Officers Movement came together in the early to mid 1940s, among a group of mid-rank military officers from modest (mostly working or middle class) backgrounds, over their shared hostility toward Britain’s ongoing influence over Egyptian politics and in particular over the Egyptian monarchy. It was Nasser, with his commanding presence and ideas about Egyptian (later pan-Arab) nationalism and socialism (initially this was little more than general hostility toward the upper class), who gave the movement the beginnings of an ideology and a leader who could see their project through to completion.

It was the humbling—humiliating, even—defeat suffered by Egypt and the other major Arab states in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that crystallized the Free Officers’ plan. Nasser, then a lieutenant colonel, fought in the war and saw his brigade surrounded by Israeli forces and virtually abandoned by both the Egyptian and Jordanian governments. He came away from the war believing that the incompetence and corruption of the Egyptian monarchy had betrayed its soldiers. The Free Officers’ path was clear: for Egypt to progress, the monarchy had to go. It was at this point that they recruited Naguib, who had emerged from the war as one of its few Egyptian heroes and would, they figured, make an excellent figurehead/alternative to King Farouk as the public face of their revolution.

In a rare bit of Cold War collaboration, the Free Officers were encouraged by both the US and USSR, who didn’t much care for the fact that Britain had so much control over the Suez Canal and were amenable to a change in the political situation in Cairo. The officers organized protests against and attacks on the government, while building support for a coup within the military. They began that coup on July 22, after Naguib found out that Farouk knew who the Free Officers were and that he was planning on arresting the lot of them. That evening was spent consolidating their support, including crucially the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s leadership was not unanimously behind the coup, it was not ideologically compatible with the Free Officers Movement, and its relationship with Nasser would later fall apart, but on the basic questions (getting rid of the monarchy and kicking Britain out) the Brotherhood and Nasser were sympatico, and Nasser made enough vague gestures at the idea of making religion a bigger part of public life that the Brotherhood could get on board.

On the morning of July 23, future Egyptian President (but then lieutenant colonel) Anwar Sadat read a statement over Egyptian airwaves declaring the revolution. Nasser and his men had already arrested several key royalists and essentially taken control of Cairo, so Farouk was left with no choice but to abdicate in favor of his son, who became Fuad II but clearly had no mandate to rule apart from what the Free Officers allowed him to have. His reign didn’t even last a year, until June 1953, when the Free Officers (whose leadership committee was now calling itself the Revolution Command Council) did away with the monarchy and transformed Egypt into a republic (this decision facilitated Nasser’s break with the Muslim Brotherhood, but I digress).

Nasserism, the blend of socialism, nationalism, anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, and republicanism that was Egypt’s governing ethos under Nasser and his successors, was one of the most influential intellectual movements to sweep through the Middle East in the 20th century. Paradoxically, Nasserism is anti-Communist (his “Arab socialism” was explicitly meant as a counter to communism), but Egypt under Nasser became dependent on Soviet aid as its relations with the US and UK deteriorated (Sadat switched course, abandoned most of Nasserism’s tenets, and went over to the US by the late 1970s). Nasserist movements developed elsewhere in the region, especially in Lebanon and Syria (which entered a brief political union with Egypt under Nasser from 1958 to 1961), and influenced the Baʿath Party in Syria and Iraq. The revolution also kicked off the “Arab Cold War,” pitting Nasser’s Egypt and the forces of republicanism against Saudi Arabia and the forces of traditional monarchy.

Nasser also supported leftist movements outside the Arab world, like Castro’s 26th of July Movement and the African National Congress, and under his rule Egypt was one of the core members of the Non-Aligned Movement, alongside India, Indonesia, and several other nations (this all helps to explain why Egypt’s relationship with the US deteriorated). So apart from its effect on Egyptian history, the 23 July Revolution had a pretty major impact on affairs across the Arab world and beyond.