The New Arab Logo

Breaking News
Egypt's history of erasing presidents from Mohamed Naguib to Mohamed Morsi Open in fullscreen

Amr Salahi

Egypt's history of erasing presidents from Mohamed Naguib to Mohamed Morsi

Mohamed Naguib was Egypt's first president but his successors tried to erase his legacy [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 July, 2019

Share this page:
  • 0

  • twitter
In-depth: After Morsi's death last month, Egyptian media has tried to minimise his legacy and erase his memory – but he's not the first Egyptian president to suffer this treatment.

When Mohamed Morsi died on June 17, Egyptian state-controlled media made every effort to minimise his legacy. Announcements of his death made no mention of the fact that he had been Egypt's president, serving from 2012 until he was deposed in a military coup in 2013. Some Egyptian newspapers ignored his death or relegated it to the centre pages, providing only brief notices.

Morsi was Egypt's first democratically elected president, but he wasn't the first that the Egyptian state had tried to erase from memory and he wasn't the first to suffer at the hands of the same state he had tried to lead.

When General Mohamed Naguib died in 1984, alone, confined to the same house for 30 years, and suffering from depression, few Egyptians under the age of 30 had heard of his name. Egyptian schoolbooks didn't mention him and the Egyptian press had forgotten him. 

However, Mohamed Naguib was Egypt's first ever president, holding the office from 1953 to 1954. The circumstances of Naguib's coming to power and the way he was removed from power were very different from Morsi's but there are striking similarities in the way the memory of the two presidents – and what they represented – were hidden by the Egyptian state.

Mohamed Morsi didn't 'die' - he was killed
Read also: Mohamed Morsi didn't 'die' - he was killed

Egyptian history books usually refer to the July 1952 overthrow of King Farouk as a "revolution" but it is more accurate to call it a military coup.

By 1952, the Egyptian monarchy had lost legitimacy among many Egyptians and was seen as corrupt and subservient to Britain, which maintained 80,000 troops in the Suez Canal area and dominated Egypt's affairs. Naguib came to power as head of the Free Officers' Movement, a group of nationalist officers dedicated to overthrowing the monarchy, ridding Egypt of British domination, and restoring Egypt's pride after it had been defeated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The rest of the Free Officers were younger and lower in rank than Naguib and they needed a leader with authority. At 51 years of age, Naguib was chosen to head the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) which took power after the July 1952 coup because of the independence he had shown King Farouk before. He had attempted to resign from the army when the British forced Farouk to appoint Mustafa Nahhas as prime minister in 1942 and his prestige had increased after he was wounded in battle during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The Free Officers' overthrow of Farouk received widespread support among Egyptians. Farouk was forced to abdicate in favour of his infant son, Ahmed Fouad II, who reigned for less than a year before Naguib declared Egypt a republic with himself as president on June 18, 1953.

Farouk was forced to abdicate in favour of his infant son, Ahmed Fouad II, who reigned for less than a year before Naguib declared Egypt a republic with himself as president on June 18, 1953

From leader to figurehead

Naguib had by this time gained great personal popularity among Egyptians. He promised that the Egyptian military had not seized power permanently and would restore democracy.

In the end, he was never given a chance to act on this promise. As head of the RCC, Naguib abrogated the 1923 constitution, dissolved all political parties (many of which were tainted by association with the monarchy) and issued a new constitutional declaration, but he found himself sidelined by the younger Free Officers of the RCC, who would take and implement decisions without him. By early 1954, it was clear that they saw Naguib as a figurehead, with themselves as the real rulers of the country.

Naguib angrily submitted his resignation on February 22, 1954, and this was accepted by the RCC. However, a wave of popular protests supporting Naguib forced the RCC to reinstate him just five days later. The following month, measures to restore democratic politics and dissolve the RCC were announced.

Naguib with the Free Officers. By early 1954 they were taking decisions without reference to him [Getty]

However, the other RCC members, led by Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, moved quickly against Naguib's power and authority.

Naguib had, until March 1954, held both the posts of president and prime minister of Egypt. At the end of March he was forced to give up the post of prime minister to Nasser and from then onwards, he was excluded from the RCC's decision-making process.

By early 1954, it was clear that they saw Naguib as a figurehead, with themselves as the real rulers of the country

Removed for 'Muslim Brotherhood sympathies'

While monarchy-era political parties such as the Wafd Party and the Liberal Constitutional Party had been abolished after the 1952 coup, political life in Egypt continued.

The Muslim Brotherhood supported the coup, as did the Communist Democratic Front for National Liberation. Both groups were allowed to continue operating but differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the RCC quickly emerged when the RCC promulgated a secular constitution for Egypt.

In October 1954, there was an assassination attempt against Nasser in Alexandria, which Nasser blamed on the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood was dissolved and thousands of its members were arrested and later tortured or executed. Naguib was accused of sympathising with the Brotherhood and this was used as a pretext for his removal as president.

Nasser assumed the presidency, and by that time the only legal political organisation left was the Liberation Rally, set up by the RCC in 1953. Egypt would spend the next 58 years – until the 2011 – as an authoritarian state under the domination of one political party and the military, undergoing limited liberalisation under Anwar Sadat in the 1970s.

All references removed

After his removal as president, Naguib was placed under house arrest in a villa in Cairo belonging to Zainab al-Wakil, the wife of monarchy-era Prime Minister Mustafa Nahhas.

Not content with Naguib's removal from power, Nasser had all references to Naguib in official documents expunged. History textbooks in schools would refer to Nasser as the first president of Egypt without any mention of Naguib.

Naguib wasn't released from house arrest until 1971, shortly after Nasser's death and Anwar Sadat's assumption of the presidency. But by that time, he had got so used to his imprisonment that he refused to leave the villa he was confined to, preferring the company of cats and dogs to people, saying that animals were far more trustworthy than humans.

Egypt would spend the next 58 years – until the 2011 – as an authoritarian state under the domination of one political party

Before his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1984, he wrote a memoir entitled I was a President of Egypt, the title of which seemed to be a correction to his erasure from history by the Nasser regime.

Towards the end of his life, Naguib suffered from depression and preferred the company of animals to people [Wikimedia Commons]

Threatened by hope

Naguib's brief time in power was one of hope – hope that Egypt could become a truly independent country, no longer a British colony in all but name.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the making of today's Middle East
Read also: The 1967 Arab-Israeli War
and the making of today's Middle East

He held out the promise of a return to democracy and political organisations continued to operate under his rule. This all came to an end when Naguib was deposed and placed under house arrest, with all references to him in official communication erased.

Similarly, the period after Egypt's 2011 revolution was a time of hope that Egypt could leave behind decades of authoritarianism and become a true democracy.

When democratic presidential elections – won by Mohamed Morsi – were held in 2012, these hopes seemed closer to reality than ever. However, like Naguib, Morsi was confronted by institutions and a military determined to stop any transition to democracy.

Before he became president, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took steps to make sure that Morsi, like Naguib, would only be a figurehead without any real authority, by restricting presidential powers and assuming the powers of a parliament which sat for only three months in 2012 before being dissolved.

While Morsi tried to overturn SCAF's moves to limit his powers, he ultimately failed and was also deposed in a coup which quickly brought political life in Egypt to an end, re-establishing Egypt firmly as an authoritarian state which persecuted not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also secular political activists, some of whom had celebrated Morsi's removal from power.

Morsi was of course held in much harsher conditions than Mohammed Naguib, in solitary confinement without adequate medical care. These conditions meant that he would only live six years after being ousted, in contrast to the 30 years Naguib managed.

Morsi was of course held in much harsher conditions than Mohammed Naguib, in solitary confinement without adequate medical care

Following his overthrow, the Egyptian state tried to erase Naguib from the public record. Today, in the age of the internet and social media, it is much more difficult to erase the memory of politicians and political events. Nevertheless, the Egyptian state has been doing its best to do so, issuing textbooks which vilify Morsi and gloss over the 2011 Egyptian revolution, while the Egyptian media barely mention Egypt's first democratically elected president, and when they do, leave out the fact that he was a president.

Today, Naguib's memory has been partially restored by the Egyptian state. A metro station and a large military base are named after him and he was posthumously granted the Order of the Nile in 2013.

By the time of Naguib's death in 1984, the Egyptian state was no longer afraid of his memory. It remains to be seen whether Morsi's memory will eventually be dignified in the same way, but it seems that the Egyptian state considered both men to be a threat, not so much for who they were, but for the hopes that they represented during their brief time in power.


Amr Salahi is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab

The New ArabComments

Most Popular

Most Popular

    Read More