Obese and the arrogant nominal ruler of Egypt, King Farouk had all the trappings of wealth and then some with sprawling palaces, yachts, and a huge pornographic art collection.
Playing poker in his palace on the night an alleged coup was supposed to take place, he brushed the speculation off calling the plotters a “bunch of pimps.” By morning he’d started recriminations in the army and chosen a new prime minister and his brother-in-law as new minister of war tasked with overseeing the capture of the plotters.
The opposition, the Society of Free Officers Dhobat el-Ahrar, was led by 34-year-old Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser was handsome, taciturn, and a natural strategist. The Free Officers, though, chose as their nominal head and the face of their organisation, General Mohammed Neguib, a 54-year-old respected war veteran.
The real purpose of the Free Officers was to get rid of the British and their imperial forces. At the time there were only 3 recognised independent states in Africa – Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa. The British had allowed Farouk’s dynasty to continue and Nasser saw this as an affront to true Egyptian nationalism. For the first time since Persian conquest 2,500 years ago Egyptians would rule Egypt. Farouk was himself part of the latest dynasty to find itself in power, started by his great-great-grandfather Mohammed Ali 140 years earlier.
Farouk’s army generals decided to set up a meeting to plan the capture of this new threat to the king – Cairo at the time was always full of plotting and assassination and Farouk had removed himself from here and spent a lot of time in his palaces in other parts of the country so that he was far removed from the kind of danger he was in.
When the Free Officers got wind of the meeting Nasser decided to capture them all in one place. At the time there were just about 100 officers in the society.
On the day of the scheduled attack Nasser drove around in his civvies and at one point was even stopped by traffic police, and at another he was nearly shot by his own men who mistook him for someone else.
When they did attack the government building where the army generals had gathered there was only token resistance before the generals all gave up.
Next Nasser and his men got control of the telegraph office, the radio station, and several police stations and government buildings. They also set up roadblocks in case the British tried to step in to help Farouk.
Now they had the king all that was left to do was determine what to do with him. Nasser had sometime earlier been involved in another plot where their target was to be assassinated – this would leave a bitter experience for him, and he would later say that he had nightmares of screaming children and crying women.
It was with relief then when the intended victim actually survived. With Farouk Nasser argued for the king’s life. He wrote to his co-conspirators: Their objective, he said, was to wrest control from a corrupt government and give justice back to the people. Killing Farouk then would clearly be unjust without a trial, and if they were to set up a trial the whole thing would distract them from setting up a new government.
So Farouk’s life was ultimately spared, and he hastily packed some trunks filled with money and gold and departed for Europe.
At the start the Free Officers really had no great plans for the country. They were all from the military and inexperienced at ruling. They’d all wanted to get rid of British occupation and their figurehead Farouk and they’d achieved this. They now started a comprehensive land reform that would redistribute land from the rich who owned over half of the nation’s cultivatable land.
6 months afterward though and the Free Officers found that they had to consolidate their power. They duly got rid of all opposition, from student and trade unions to communists and organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands were arrested and Nasser more and more would rely on the services of his ruthless secret police. In 1954, after inner conflict in the Free Officers who had now changed their name to the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), Nasser emerged as the sole leader, ousting the distinguished Neguib. He thus set up himself to become president, giving himself massive powers.
At this stage Nasser began to see himself as an Arab leader, and took seriously opposing the influence of the West in the Arab world. He would do this by first seeking independence for Sudan and then pushing for a British withdrawal from Egypt’s Canal Zone.
For starters Egypt had always seen Sudan as a part of their country – Mohammed Ali (Farouk’s great-great-grandfather) had conquered them in 1819 and its capital, Khartoum, which stood at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile, had originally been an Egyptian army outpost. Technically they were supposed to rule Sudan alongside the British, but in practise only the British ruled.
Nasser and the Free Officers would always want to unite the White and Blue sides of the Nile together, and he fought for their independence from colonial rule, believing privately that when the time came the Sudanese would chose to unite with the Egyptians into one country. He even proclaimed himself “King of Sudan” in propaganda.
Britain could not argue with this rising tide of resentment in both Egypt and Sudan whose nationalism parties were pushing more and more for self-determination. In the end, to try to still have some influence in the region, Britain agreed to give Sudan independence.
Sudanese independence, thus, wasn’t based on the country’s readiness for self-determination but on the interests of 2 rival powers. Both sides had neglected to see the warning signs already showing themselves when you considered the difference between the Northern and Southern parts of the country.
The northern part of Sudan, dry and hot, comprised a homogeneous Arab-speaking populace while the southern part of the country, with much fertile land, was made up of disparate black tribes with different languages and different traditional religions. There was also a Christian minority in the south who had been educated in mission schools. The south of Sudan was therefore very underdeveloped and unready for independence.
Further more, historically the north had always been contemptuous of the south and referred to southerners by the disparaging abid, which means slaves, as in the past northern slave traders would capture slaves from the south for their use. So while the north may have welcomed self-determination the south was anxious as to just how much power they would get from the deal, sensing they would be overrun quickly by the more sophisticated northern part of the country.
The second thing Nasser and the RCC wanted was for Britain to pull out of the Canal Zone. For Britain this was one of the most important parts of their empire with the Zone being a hub for Middle East, Europe and African trade. A previous 1936 treaty should have limited the number of men in the British garrison to 10,000 men, but there were more like 80,000 on ground. This was due to the fact that resentment for the British in that region (Egyptians saw it as an affront to their sovereignty) was always high and large numbers of troops were needed on ground to protect the administrative workers actually needed to run the base. You thus had the ridiculous scenario where 50,000 troops were needed to protect 30,000 men on the base.
By the early 50’s Britain’s continued presence in the Canal Zone became untenable as politicians in White Hall debated the wisdom in remaining in so hostile a region, especially as they wanted to exact more of an influence in Middle Eastern politics and Nasser’s anti-Western rhetoric in the region was doing more damage than any good from remaining in the Canal Zone would do.
The British thus secured an exit from the Canal Zone by 18 June 1956, withdrawing all troops and leaving only a few technicians and administrators to run the place and manage British ordnance for 7 years after, and with a clause in the treaty that would leave the door open for Britain to come back in case of trouble in the region involving the Soviet Union or some other “outside power”.
Nasser’s star in the Middle East only rose after he’d successfully got the Imperialists out and a sort of personality cult soon developed around him with radio stations continually singing his praise in the region. This was a far cry from the failure he’d felt during the Arab-Israeli war, a loss he’d blamed on Farouk’s failing to adequately equip the Egyptian army.
At this point Nasser saw himself and Egypt as fighting for the region’s development and soon had plans for building a dam, which would be one of the biggest engineering projects in the world. He turned early on to the Americans and British for support, and at first the Americans had agreed though Britain had refused from the outset. But his continued anti-Western rhetoric wasn’t winning him any friends in Washington, and matters were made even more complex when a British advisor to the Jordanian royal family, Sir John Glubb, was fired.
The British Prime Minister at the time, Anthony Eden, blamed King Hussein’s sudden dismissal of Glubb on Nasser’s influence and this put further strain on British-Egypt relations. It is even said that Eden at this point was strongly considering his assassination.
When America withdrew its support for his High Dam project, and when in response to anti-British sentiment in the region Britain cut its military support for Egypt’s army, relations became even more strained. Then Israel attacked 3 Egyptian army posts in the Gaza Strip in 1955, blowing up their army headquarters there. Nasser saw this as part of a Western plot and when he would get no military assistance from the west he took to getting whatever support he could to reequip the ill-equipped Egyptian army. He got help from the Soviets, which sent shock waves around Western governments.
Another event would nearly lead the West to war and it was when Nasser announced plans to nationalize the Suez Canal Company an Egyptian registered private company with both British and French shareholders who had run the company since completion of the canal in 1866.
This move was a response to Nasser not getting support for his High Dam from the west. The canal was also the world’s most important waterway with 12,000 ships from 45 countries and the main route for British oil at the time, carrying more than 20 million tons of oil a year for Britain. Nasser intended that revenue from the canal would go straight to his High Dam project, but Eden had finally had enough. He was eager for war, and so was Guy Mollet, the PM of France.
But Washington did not agree with Eden and Mollet, thinking that the only reason for going to war would be if traffic on the canal slowed down due to its nationalization. But traffic and business had actually increased since the company’s nationalization.
With British support the Israelis then staged an attack, crossing the Sinai and intending to take the canal. Britain and France then issued an ultimatum under pretext to separate the combatants – Egypt was supposed to remove its troops west of the canal. But Nasser did not meet the ultimatum and instead sunk some ships to block the canal.
When the Americans learned of the whole conspiracy they were livid and insisted on Britain’s full withdrawal. Saudi Arabia stopped trading oil, and even the Soviets threatened a missile strike. Nasser was vindicated and the whole incident only added to Nasser’s status and power in the Middle East. At one fell swoop, after the canal incident of 1956, he would reduce foreign influence in Egyptian commercial, academic and social life, sequestering all foreign banks and companies and passing laws that required all companies operating in the area to be Egyptian registered with majority Egyptian ownership and management.
For Britain the Suez Canal crisis effectively ended their imperial stranglehold in the Middle East as both their power and influence became undermined. But this would also be the case in the rest of Africa who now saw that independence from British rule was possible.
For the French though, they still considered their African colonies to be very much a part of French plans. Next time round we’ll look at French Africa. Till then hope you enjoyed this and if so please don’t forget to share on social media channels
- The State of Africa, Martin Meredith
- The Story of African Independence – Ghana
- The Story of African Independence – French Maghreb