Egypt’s “Free Officers” of 1952.

Leaders of Free Officer movement in 1952, shortly after overthrow of King Farouk.

We hope that yesterday’s statement by Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s 30-year president, that he will not seek re-election is step one toward a happy outcome to this month’s dramatic democracy uprising there (step 2 being to move up the departure date and safeguard an actual fair election).   If so, for Egypt, the moment will echo a similar one almost 60 years ago, the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk by the young military reformers who called themselves the Free Officers.

Their faded snapshot above, taken in 1952, was a fascinating window into the future.  Look close and see the faces of three future Egyptian presidents: Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970, seated far left), Muhammad Naguib (1953-1955, on Nasser’s left), and Anwar El Sadat (1970-1981, seated far right).   

King Farouk with wife and daughter in 1953.

Mubarak himself is not in the photo.  Mubarak in 1952 was still just a 24 year-old Air Force pilot who later would rise to become Air Force chief of staff, then Deputy Defense Minister, and finally Sadat’s vice president before taking the top spot after Sadat’s 1981 assassination.  (Click here for my post on Sadat from yesterday.)

The 1952 Young Officer coup was a turning point  for Egypt, fraught with promise and excitement.  King Farouk was the tenth ruler in a 150 year-old dynasty that had led Egypt into decline.   By the time Farouk took power in 1936, Egypt had long ago been invaded and occupied by Britian, which continued to dominate local affairs, especially regarding the Suez Canal.   

Farouq added incompetence, corruption, and personal squalor.  He weighed 300 pounds, described once as “a stomach with a head.”  He had numerous romantic affairs, two marriages, and made no attempt to hide his lavish lifestyle: palaces, cars, huge estates, shopping sprees to Europe.  The last straw was Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, widely blamed within Egypt on government incompetence.

In the late 1940s, a group of military officers, mostly young, educated, and middle class, began meeting  to plot change.  (Then as now, civilian opposition was badly disorganized as a result of Royal and British suppression.)   The officers saw their chance as public discontent began to peak in early 1952.  That January, after a bloody attack by British soldiers on a local police station, Farouk dissolved his government and failed for months to find a stable replacement.  On July 23, tipped off that they had been discovered, the Free Officers decided to strike.  They launched a pre-dawn coup, seizing key military and police command posts and rounding up  government  figures.  By 7:30 am, they announced the revolution in Cairo and, within two days, they controlled the country, forcing Farouk to abdicate and find exile in Italy.

The moment was ripe with possibilities.  Nasser emerged the dominant personality through the 1950s and 1960s, and his presidency became in lightning rod on the world stage.   The personalities of this small band of military friends, for good and bad, would define Egypt for the next half century. 

All of which begs the question:  Where are Egypt’s Free Officers of 2011 — the new generation of leaders, militray and civilian, ready to move the country past the Mubarak era?  Today’s democracy uprising is no coup d’etat.  By all accounts, as yet it has no small clique of leaders like the Free Officers.  Instead, it reflects an explosion of wide popular discontent.  This likely will change as events crystallize over coming weeks and accepted leaders emerge.  A first rule of politics is this:  You can’t beat somebody with nobody.

If things go well, I expect we will meet them soon — possibly in a photograph like the one above. And their faces will be the best clue to “what comes next after Mubarak.”

A good moment to recall Egypt’s President Sadat.

Anwar El Sadat, President of Egypt (1970-1981)

 As Egypt, the oldest, largest (79 million people), and arguably most important country in the Middle East, navigates its way through a dangerous, exhilarating week of protest against its 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak, and we in the West ponder nervously what might come should Mubarak go, this is a useful time to remember Anwar el Sadat.

Anwar El Sadat was one of the original circle of army officers that toppled the corrupt monarchy of King Farouk in 1952, establishing modern Egypt and ending British dominance in the country.  He became Egypt’s third president on the death of his mentor, Egypt’s second president, Abdel Gamal Nasser, in 1970.

A graduate of Egypt’s Royal Military Academy, Sadat is remembered in the West primarily for three events that highlighted his term:

  • War with Israel:   On October 6 1973, he ordered Egypt’s army to launch a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.  Sadat’s army penetrated Israel’s Bar Lev line, crossed the Suez Canal, and penetrated 15 kilometers into the Sinai Peninsula before Israel could launch a counter-strike, itself crossing the Suez to encircle parts of the Egyptian Army.  The result was stalemate, viewed in Egypt as victory, restoring national honor after its defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. 

  • Peace with Israel:  Sadat then made peace.  Late in 1977, he dramatically offered personally to visit Jerusalem to jump-start talks.  The result was the 1978 Camp David Accords, negotiated with Israel’s Menachem Begin with help from US President Jimmy Carter.  Egypt became the first front-line Arab state to sign a treaty with Israel, which has held for over 30 years.  Sadat himself won the Nobel Peace Prize (shared with Begin) for his effort, but was vilified in much of the Arab world and Egypt itself was temporarily expelled from the Arab League;

    Assassination of President Sadat, 1981.
  • Death by Assassination:  Finally, in September 1981, Sadat, warned about growing criticism and conspiracy threats, ordered a crackdown on political enemies. His police rounded up some 1,500 critics: Islamists, Christian clerics, and academics and intellectuals of every stripe.  The next month, on September 6, as Sadat sat reviewing a military parade, a small band of dissident officers attacked with grenades and gunfire, killing Sadat and eleven others.  Two of the assassins were killed on the spot, and over 300 Islamic radicals were indicted to stand trial, including future al-Qaeda co-founder Ayman el-Zawahiri.

It is now thirty years since these events, and during that entire time Egypt has had just one ruler, President Hosni Mubarak.  Uner Mubarak, Egypt has remained stable politically (and cooperative with the US on key foreign policy initiatives) but at the cost of economic stagnation and political repression.  The resulting wide anger against him is visible in the huge protests this week.  All the world wonders – If Mubarak falls, what will follow?

This brings me back to Anwar El Sadat.  Sadat was controversial, loved and hated, and certainly had flaws by any view.  Still, as a leader, be carried himself with dignity,  moderation, and competence.  At home, he instituted pluralist politics and economic reforms, and had the backbone to take bold stands. He expelled Soviet military advisers in order to make his army more independent, then proved its worth in the Yom Kippur War.   Globally, he reached out to all sides, East and West, making his country a top payer on the world stage.

The fact is, over the centuries, Egypt, with its ancient culture, diverse population, and deep-rooted institutions, has produced many capable leaders, and today’s Egyptian army — by all accounts trusted by the people — appears an incubator of new talent.  Hopefully, in days and weeks to come, Egypt will struggle through its current turmoil and emerge a stronger, happier, freer place.  Rather than fear the likely change, we in the West can take confidence that this is the same country that elevated to its top position someone of the caliber of Anwar El Sadat.  Hopefully, there are others waiting in the wings.