Egypt's 1952 revolution: Seven decades on, military autocracy endures

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6 min read
22 July, 2022
In-depth: Fuelled by nationalism, pan-Arabism, and anti-imperialism, the revolution of 1952 overthrew King Farouk to create a republic free from foreign rule. Seventy years later, the ideals of freedom and equality remain as distant as ever.

On 23 July 1952, a group of Egyptian army officers removed King Farouk I from power amid popular support from the masses. The bloodless military coup-d’état was particularly significant as it paved the way for Egypt to transform from a kingdom into a republic.

In the years leading up to what was later called the ‘23 July Revolution,’ Arab nationalism had been rising in Egypt. The Egyptian army was not properly equipped in their war to support Palestinians against the Israeli occupation in 1948, with the king blamed for its inadequacies.

Farouk I was also criticised for leading an extravagant lifestyle and for acquiescing to Britain’s occupation of the country, which at that time had lasted for around 70 years.

"Since 23 July 1952, no Egyptian president has left office voluntarily or after losing an election. Leaders have either been assassinated or overthrown"

A number of events took place in 1952 which undermined the king’s rule. Among them was the 25 January attack by British troops on the province of Ismailia to disarm local police in order to maintain authority over the canal zone. Dozens of officers were killed in the attack.

The incident led to widespread demonstrations against the British across Egypt and the date later became known as National Police Day.

Another episode that stirred up the fury of Egyptians against the king and the British was the ‘Cairo Fire’, which saw the destruction of over 700 buildings following a series of anti-British protests.

This domestic instability led colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser to mobilise a group within the army that called themselves 'The Free Officers' movement with one aim in mind: to oust the monarchy.

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A short-lived president

After the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy, they selected the oldest of them, General Mohamed Naguib, as a leader who could address the people.

Farouk’s baby son, Prince Ahmed Foaud, was proclaimed king and a regency council was appointed.

Despite enthusiastically backing the Free Officers Movement, little did Egyptians know at the time that the freedom and prosperity they sought would remain out of reach, instead laying the foundations for almost seven decades of military autocracy.

Naguib was sworn in as the first president of the Egyptian republic in 1953, but after disagreements with other members of the Revolutionary Command Council he was ousted and replaced by Nasser in 1954.

“Naguib supported liberalism and a civil rule, believing that the army’s role was over after ousting the monarchy and liberating the country and that they should get back to their units, while his peers wanted to rule the country,” an Egyptian historian told The New Arab on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“That’s how things went wrong for him.”

Naguib was reportedly humiliated by the Free Officers and forced to remain under house arrest isolated from his family and the external world, only having a dog for a company until he died in 1984.

Egypt's 1952 revolution: Seven decades of military rule
Mubarak's presidency lasted almost thirty years until the 2011 revolution. [Getty]

Changes in Egypt's social structure were among some of the outcomes of the ouster of the monarchy, with rural culture becoming more prominent in urban centres, leading to changes in attitudes towards women and religious minorities, according to political sociologist Dr Said Sadek.

Following the events of the 23rd of July, Nasser nationalised businesses mostly owned by the aristocratic class, foreigners, and the Jewish community in Egypt.

Nasser also changed the feudal social order, redistributing land owned by the rich among the rural class.

“The countryside and its culture dominated the state, compared to the time of the monarchy when we had an upper class,” Said told The New Arab.

"The military has always ruled the country whether we liked it or not. Those who came after the Free Officers never let go of leadership voluntarily"

Glued to the palace

Since 23 July 1952, no Egyptian president has left office voluntarily or after losing an election. Leaders have either been assassinated or overthrown.

Over the past 70 years, Egypt has either been ruled by former military officers or controlled by the army, except for two years; during the rule of late leader Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically-elected president overthrown on 3 July 2013 by the then-defence minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

Morsi was replaced by the president of the constitution court Adly Mansour, who served as interim president until Sisi, already the de facto leader, was elected president a year later in June 2014.

“The military has always ruled the country whether we liked it or not. Those who came after the Free Officers never let go of leadership voluntarily,” the Egyptian historian told The New Arab.

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“You can see this clearly with the subsequent presidents that ran the country, and the constitution had been amended for some to stay in power like the case with late Anwar Sadat, assassinated in 1981, followed by the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.”

Said contributed another opinion.

“Fear and the loss of interests made Egyptians refrain from challenging rulers, looking at military reign as being inevitable, particularly as the successive military regimes weakened any public interest in politics,” he argued.

“It has become customary for families if one of them is detained that they defend him [or her] saying we are a respectable family that has nothing to do with politics,” Said added.

In order for Sisi to secure office, “he keeps a steady relation with the army and controls the judiciary as he rules the country with an iron fist,” a political analyst, who declined to be named for the sake of his safety, told The New Arab.

"Egyptians refrain from challenging rulers, looking at military reign as being inevitable, particularly as successive military regimes have weakened any public interest in politics"

“Army officers after Sisi enjoy benefits they had not had the same way before him. Sisi makes sure to take a grip of the commanders to ensure their loyalty and avoid the mistakes of his predecessors, namely Mubarak and Morsi, so he can remain in power and not be revolted against,” the analyst added.

“Moreover, he controls the media and there is no space for free speech or democracy, also avoiding the mistakes of Mubarak and Morsi, that led to their ouster.”

This month, for the first time in the country’s history, Sisi appointed a military judge as the deputy president of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

“This way Sisi makes sure he also controls the highest court in Egypt by keeping an army judge inside who is supposed to be loyal to him,” the analyst concluded.

With Sisi's reign arguably one of the most repressive periods in Egypt's modern history, the longevity of military rule in Egypt seems set to continue.

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital