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.”