Middle East Resources

The Tragedy of Post-Colonial Middle East Ravaged by Military Coup d’états

By Bassam Michael Madany

Part II: The Militarization of Egyptian Governance

Syria began the cycle of military coup d’états in the Middle East during the summer of 1949. Three years later, Egypt went through a similar upheaval, even though it lacked the violence that had accompanied the Syrian coup.

On 22–26 July 1952, a group of disaffected officers in the Egyptian army launched a coup d’état against the government of King Farouk of Egypt. At first, the leader of the Revolution was a seasoned officer, General Muhammad Naguib, It didn’t take long to discover that the real power behind the coup was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, founder of the Free Officers group who had participated in the First Arab-Israeli War, in May 1948. While the Egyptian Army managed to occupy the Gaza Strip and the region of Hebron;  by the end of the summer, Egypt and all the other Arab armies that had participated in the war, had accepted the Armistice Agreement that was negotiated by the United Nations Organization.

Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled Egypt from 1952 until his death in September 1970. During this period, modernization and Socialist reforms became a part of Egyptian life. He regarded himself as the leader of Pan-Arab nationalism. On the world stage, Nasser was a constituent member of the Non-Aligned Movement with Prime Minister Nehru of India, Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, and President Sukarno, of Indonesia.

Three years after the Revolution, President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal that had been under the control of Britain and France. In response, Israeli, British and French forces attacked the Canal’s zone, which precipitated a major world crisis. Both the USR and the US (under President Eisenhauer) forced the retreat of British, French, and Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula.

President Nasser & the Muslim Brotherhood

The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Jama ‘at al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) was founded by the Egyptian teacher, Hassan al-Banna in 1928, four years after Kemal Ataturk, President of Turkey, had abolished the Caliphate. During the reign of King Farouk, the Brotherhood was involved in the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Elnokrashy Pasha on 28 December 1948. In retaliation, the government arranged for the murder of al-Banna on 12 February 1949.

The Muslim Brotherhood did not welcome Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, that brought them into conflict with him. On 26 October 1954, while President Nasser was addressing a Rally in Alexandria, a member of the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him. That led to a campaign of persecution of the organization, including the execution of several of the Brotherhood’s leaders.

[A personal note. At the time, I was living in Syria; quite often I would tune in to Radio Cairo. On Tuesday afternoon of 26 October 1954, while listening to President Nasser’s speech, I heard gun shots. A few moments later, it became clear that Nasser was safe! What a relief!]

One of the major leaders in the Brotherhood was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. He had authored several books, including “Ma'alim fi al-Tariq,” (Milestones on the Way,) where he outlined a plan for organizing the Muslim world on strictly Quranic grounds, casting off what he  considered Jahiliyyah (Ignorance), a term describing the pre-Islamic days in Arabia. In 1966, he was convicted of plotting the assassination of President Nasser and was executed by hanging.

President Nasser’s Foreign Adventures

President Nasser’s commitment to Pan-Arabism led him to adventures beyond
Egypt, in Syria and in Yemen.

On 22 February 1958, Egypt and Syria united to form the United Arab Republic. Arab nationalists in the Middle East hailed the birth of the UAR as the first step in the realization of their dream for a larger union. That triggered serious conflicts within Lebanon and Jordan, where local “Nasserite” activist groups hailing Nasser as their hero.  

In 1958, President Camille Chamoun of Lebanon, fearing trouble from the “Nasserites,” requested the assistance of the United States. President Eisenhauer sent American forces to help in stabilizing the situation. American and Lebanese government forces successfully occupied the Port of Beirut and Beirut International Airport. With the crisis over, the United States withdrew.

Jordan felt isolated as never before, after the fall of the Monarchy in Iraq on 14 July 1958. King Hussein appealed both to the United States and to Britain for help. The United States instituted an airlift of petroleum. In July 1958 Britain flew troops into Amman to stabilize the regime. For some weeks, the political atmosphere in Jordan was explosive, but the government kept order through limited martial law. The army proved its unquestioning loyalty to the king, and the Israeli frontier remained quiet.

Nasser’s involvement in the Yemeni Civil War proved to be one of his most serious mistakes. Yemen and Saudi Arabia were the only independent countries in the Arabian Peninsula. Britain controlled the port city of Aden, in southern Yemen and the Emirates that dotted the southern and eastern coasts of Arabia, all the way to Kuwait.

On 26 September 1962, a coup d’état was carried out by the Yemeni army commander Abdullah as-Sallal who dethroned Imam Muhammad al-Badr and declared a republic under his presidency. Imam al-Badr retreated to the Saudi border and got support from the northern tribes, resulting in a full-scale civil war that lasted until 1970.

Jordan and Saudi Arabia came to the aid of the Royalists by supplying them with military aid. The Republicans got help from Egypt and the Soviet Union. President Nasser sent an Egyptian force of 70,000 troops who got bogged down in Yemen’s Civil War and manifested the inability of his forces to offer any substantive help to the Republicans and indicating his poor judgment as a military strategist. This weakness became shockingly evident during the June 1967 War with Israel.

Throughout the 1960s, Palestinian Fedayeen groups stationed in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, attacked Israeli towns which precipitated sharp reprisals from the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces.) In April 1967, the Israeli Air Force shot down six Syrian Soviet-made fighter jets. A month later, Soviet Intelligence claimed that Israel was planning to attack Syria, heightening the tensions between Israel and its neighbors.

From mid-May on, President Nasser began a propaganda war against the Jewish State giving the impression to the Arab masses, that victory would be quick and decisive. At the time, I was getting a daily Lebanese newspaper, An-Nahar; I still remember the references to the fiery words of the Egyptian leader. Adding to his rhetoric, Nasser requested the removal of the UN Peace-keeping Forces stationed in the Sinai since 1956, and closed the Gulf of Aqaba, thus blocking navigation to the Israeli port of Eilat, in southern Israel. 

Early on Monday morning 5 June, Israel launched a preemptive air attack that destroyed most of Egypt’s air force on the ground. Then, Israel mounted a similar assault on the Syrian air force. By Saturday the 10th, Israel had captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula up to the east bank of the Suez Canal.

King Hussein was warned to keep Jordan out of the fight; he refused, and the outcome was disastrous for his country. On 7 June, Israeli forces entered East Jerusalem and occupied most of the West Bank. A cease fire arranged by the UN Security Council on the same day was accepted by Jordan, and Israel on the following day. Syria continued to shell northern Israel forcing Israel to launch an attack on 9 June and occupy the Golan Heights. Syria accepted the cease-fire on the tenth of June.

The Six-Day War was devastating beyond Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The entire Arab world was shaken up by the Hazima (Arabic for Defeat.)  Egypt’s casualties numbered 11,000, Jordan 6,000, and Syria 1,000. The battle fields in the Sinai, West Bank, and the Golan Heights, were littered with heaps of shattered tanks, trucks, and other war materiel. 

President Nasser resigned, only to change his mind because of popular demand. Before the end of summer, the Arab League held it summit on 29 August in Khartoum, Sudan. Its Resolution came to be known as “The Three No’s” No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. The summit also resolved that the “oil-rich Arab states” give financial aid to the states who lost the war and to “help them rebuild their military forces.” The final communique of the meeting “underscored the Palestinians’ right to regain the whole of Palestine.

Having received support from the Arab countries at the Summit in Khartoum, President Nasser embarked on warlike activities known as the “War of Attrition” that involved Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO from 1967 to 1970. During the early phase of the war, there were artillery duels and incursions into the Sinai. Then on 8 March 1969, Nasser ratcheted up the conflict by large-scale shelling along the Suez Canal, extensive aerial warfare, and commando raids until August 1970, one month before his death.  

President Anwar Sadat’s New Deal

Anwar Sadat ruled Egypt from 15 October 1970 until his assassination on 6 October 1981. He was born on 25 December 1918 in a town situated in the Delta (Northern) of the country. When the British created a military academy in 1936, Sadat was among the first to enroll. After graduation, he received a government post, where he met Gamal Abdel Nasser. The two became close friends and organized a revolutionary group designed to expel the British from Egypt. In 1952, as a member with Nasser of the Free Officers Group, they were behind the coup that toppled King Farouk, and organized the republican regime. Soon after the Revolution, when Nasser assumed the Presidency, Sadat became his Vice-President.

During the turbulent years that followed the Six-Day War of June 1967, Anwar Sadat had learned several lessons, both political and military. Now as president, he knew that negotiations with Israel for the return of the Sinai were futile, unless he could negotiate from a position of strength. So, Sadat negotiated with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria and agreed on a plan to attack the Israeli forces that had dug in in their fortifications on the east side of the Suez Canal, for the past six years. Early on Saturday morning on the 6th of October 1973, the Egyptian Forces attacked the Israelis on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement,) making some headway, until the IDF succeeded to stop the Egyptian advance.                                                                                                                              

Israeli General Ariel Sharon crossed the Suez Canal in the south and overrun the Golan Heights in the north. The tide of battle turned; ceasefire negotiations eventually produced an end to hostilities. By that then, Israeli forces were not far from the gates of Damascus and were only 100 kilometres from Cairo. The war had been short, but it changed the world.                                                                     

“A few years after the Yom Kippur War, Sadat restarted his efforts to build peace in the Middle East. He went to Jerusalem in November 1977 and presented his peace plan to the Israeli Knesset. Arab states did not appreciate Sadat’s diplomatic efforts for a lasting peace with Israel. Finally, President Jimmy Carter took the initiative to help in the negotiations between Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. A preliminary peace agreement, the Camp David Accords, was agreed upon between Egypt and Israel in September 1978.

“For their historic efforts, Sadat and Begin were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1978, and follow-through on the negotiations resulted in a finalized peace treaty between Egypt and Israel—the first between Israel and an Arab country—being signed on March 26, 1979.”

Unfortunately, Sadat's popularity abroad was matched by a new animosity felt toward him in Egypt and around the Arab world. Opposition to the treaty, a declining Egyptian economy and Sadat's quashing of the resulting dissent led to general upheaval. On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated in Cairo by Muslim extremists during a military parade commemorating the victory of the Yom Kippur War!

President Hosni Mubarak

Following this tragedy, Vice-President Hosni Mubarak became president of Egypt from 1981 to 2011. “Before he entered politics, Mubarak was a career officer in the Egyptian Air Force. He served as its commander from 1972 to 1975 and rose to the rank of air chief marshal in 1973. His presidency lasted almost thirty years, making him Egypt's longest-serving ruler since Muhammad Ali Pasha, who ruled the country for 43 years from 1805 to 1848.”

Mubarak’s rule was marred by political and economic crises. In 2011, the winds of the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia, blew over to Egypt. Crowds of dissatisfied young people gathered at Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) in Cairo, demanding change in the regime. After 18 days of demonstrations, President Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011, and transferred authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He was jailed for six years after the uprising but was freed in 2017. He died, on 25 February 2020, at the age of 91.

President Mohamed Morsi

In a rather confusing atmosphere that Egypt experienced after the “fall” of the Hosni Mubarak regime, the country elected a civilian president, Mohamed Morsi. He was an Egyptian politician and engineer, having studied both in Egypt and in the United States. Soon after his election, It became clear that the vast majority of Egyptians did not want to live under an Islamist regime. The opposition formed “The National Salvation Front” (NSF) under the leadership of Mohammed el-Baradei and Amr Moussa whose goal was the formation of a commission to amend the constitution that had been adopted in 2012, and signed into law by President Morsi on 26 December 2012. Massive riots took place throughout Egypt on 30 June 2012 demanding the resignation of the President. In response, on 3 July 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed him from office in a coup d'état.

For the last seventy decades (1952 – 2020) Egypt’s governance has been under military men, except for one brief year. By pointing to this historical fact, I’m not rendering a positive, or a negative judgment. I’m simply referring to the special role of the military in the life of Egypt since the end of the Monarchy. My hope is that the country would enjoy a period of calm and stability, thus enabling the Government to cope with the mounting economic, and demographic challenges facing the future of the country.

I would like to end my article by referring to “The Role of the Suez Canal in the Life and Economy of Egypt."

“The Role of the Suez Canal in the Life and Economy of Egypt,”

In 1956, President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal that had been under joint control of Britain and France for a long time. Very soon after, Israel invaded the Sinai, and was soon joined by British and French forces that landed in the Canal area. Egypt blocked the Canal to all shipping from 1956 until March 1957. The United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations forced the invading powers to withdraw from the areas they had occupied. However, Israel attained for the first time, freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran, an essential maritime route to Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba.

A second closing of the Suez Canal took place during the Six Day War of June 196; it remained closed for more than 8 years.

Egypt’s revenue from the Suez Canal was $853.7 million in April and March 2020, 4.1 percent higher than the same period a year earlier.

In 2014, Egypt announced a plan to deepen the canal and create a new 22-mile lane branching off the main channel, due to the increase in the traffic and accommodate two-way traffic of tanker ships.