The Sextant Christopher Newport University’s On-Line History Journal

Vol. 9, Fall/Winter 2012-13




Egypt ’s history has consisted of various rulers from different countries, Britain being the most recent.  Before Britain ’s rule in Egypt , only during the period of the Pharaohs did a native Egyptian rule Egypt .  By the twentieth century, the British hold on their empire, including Egypt , was weakening, particularly after World War II.  Combining this with the resentment much of the Egyptian population held towards their monarch, change became the inevitable next step in Egypt ’s history.  Several political parties existed which could have made a leap for power when King Farouk’s regime was crumbling in the early 1950s.  The internal divisions and disorganization of many of these parties prevented them from doing so. 

One group, the Free Officers, began planning a coup d’état during the 1940s, outlining their plans under the guidance of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Through his organization and with Farouk’s crumbling regime, the Free Officers were able to acquire power in a successful coup in 1952.  Nasser arose as the leader of this movement, although not publicly so until 1954.  Behind the scenes or not, Nasser’s rise to power between the years 1952 and 1956 shows a capable man who not only overthrew the previous regime bloodlessly and eliminated threats effectively, but who consolidated power within four years.  Understanding the political, social, and economic climate preceding Nasser ’s generation provides the background during which the coup was able to succeed.

Britain declared Egypt independent in 1919, but kept the authority to become involved in specific internal affairs, which also included the rights of foreign interests, the defense of Egypt , the Suez Canal, and the Sudan .  These powers provided Britain with the ability to control the Egyptian army, and also implemented a constitutional monarchy in Egypt .  The Fu’ad, first monarch, the British, the Wafd party, and some other rival minorities all vied for power during the 1920s, preventing any one entity from acquiring too much control.  The Wafd became the first parliamentary party in Egypt ’s new “liberal” period, and would reappear throughout the following two decades.  The Wafd got along well with the British since most of the party consisted of the nobility.  The king, while owing his crown to the British, did not enjoy any such camaraderie.  Fu’ad, who ruled from 1924 – 1936, failed to liberate Egypt because he could not severe ties with them by removing them from the country.  The British could force the king to hold “free elections” to dispose of a person or party deemed unfit to be a part of the government. [1]  

       At the same time, the Wafd detested the authoritarian rule of the king, while other smaller political parties resented the Wafd’s dominance in the government.  These parties worked with the monarchy to remove the Wafd, creating further tensions, both domestically and with the British.  By cooperating with the monarchy, these minor political parties earned the disgust of the Wafd.  The monarchy gained some leverage with the support of smaller parties, but not enough to save the regime.  This environment precipitated the rise of the Free Officers movement. [2]

To Fu’ad’s regime laid the groundwork for the Free Officers Movement, but the movement truly formed during the regime under King Farouk.  Farouk’s regime was a parliamentary monarchy, with a partly elected and partly appointed Senate.  The government imitated the socioeconomic structure of European countries, although the monarch retained a significant amount of power.  The British tended to interfere in Egyptian affairs, as mentioned earlier, and supported the politician in Egypt who would best serve their interests.  Elections during this era were mostly fixed, with no single party dominating the government for an extended period.  The Wafd is the most well known party in Egyptian politics during Farouk’s regime, but their hold on power was not continuous.  Whichever party was dominating Egyptian politics allied themselves with the British.  This camaraderie was one of the roots for the social unrest in Egypt .  Another cause involves the effects of the Depression on the Egyptian economy during the 1930s.  Wages were decreased, among other economic ailments, and the amount of protesting increased. [3]

       One change during Farouk’s regime, which did not negatively affect the lower classes, involved the military.  The Officers’ Corp, previously reserved for upper class men, was opened to men from every class.  Ironically, this reform instituted by Farouk and the Wafd opened the army ranks to men who were extremely unhappy with the current state of the Egyptian government.  These men could become members of the Officers’ Corp, and they brought radical nationalism resulting from the aftermath of World War I to the military, creating tensions with the British.  These radical ideals were very popular among the younger generation, essentially Nasser ’s generation. [4]

       Further increasing the tension in Egyptian politics, Farouk signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1936, which would remove the British from all areas in Egypt , except for the Canal Zone .  The British also agreed to supply and train the Egyptian army, giving the British significant influence over the Egyptian army, which increased resentment within the ranks.  Farouk believed he had no alternative though because of the Italian threat across the Mediterranean during the 1930s.  As German and Italian forces swept into Egypt over the course of World War II, attacking several British forts, the British forced Farouk to reinstate the Wafd who would support their interests in Egypt .  He complied, sealing his fate, and irrevocably linking the Wafd with the British, and led many Egyptians to believe the party was a traitor.  The British occupied all of Egypt again during the war, increasing the population’s distrust towards the British. [5]  

       After the war, Farouk’s government attempted to maintain some semblance of control, but they lacked the unity and the experience necessary for success.  Very few Egyptians financially benefitted from the war, and the population suffered a tremendous decrease.  Egyptians were angry at the British presence (which lasted until 1947), and incredulous that Farouk would allow it. [6]   Lower social classes banded together and began rebelling against the regime. [7]   The “party politics” practiced under Farouk’s regime fell out of favor with Egyptians because much of the population viewed the regime as being “synonymous with personal corruption.” [8]   People, mostly workers and farmers, demanded social reforms.  The number of labor unions grew.  Communist groups emerged in Egypt , as did the Muslim Brotherhood, which will be discussed later in further detail. [9]   The appearance of these groups increasingly weakened the existing regime under Farouk.

Several other noteworthy groups arose during the 1930s and 1940s to counter Farouk’s regime, one of which was Young Egypt.  Created in 1933, this group sought reform and the liberation of Egypt , making their cause appealing to the younger officers like Nasser .  In 1940, Young Egypt became the National Islamic Party in Egypt and shifted their goals to the elimination of imperialism and the creation Arab unity.  Then, in 1948, it became the Socialist Party of Egypt, adding the unification of Egypt and the Sudan to its goals.  Nasser ’s political opinions were shaped by his membership in this group, although the extent of this influence cannot be measured. [10]   Nasser ’s membership also affected his opinions concerning the 1948 Palestine War.

In 1948, Britain ended its Palestine mandate and the Jewish population declared the state of Israel established.  Britain no longer held the financial capacity to support forces in Israel , and therefore, had to pull out.  Surrounding Arab armies, including the Egyptian army, invaded Israel to remove the Jews.  Egypt felt compelled to join the fight because public sentiment favored the Palestinians, since the idea of Arab unity was not entirely foreign.  Nasser decided the join the Arab Liberation Army, a volunteer military force.  Egypt launched four campaigns during the war, during which Nasser and other future Free Officers noticed the poor preparation and the lack of organization within the army, ultimately leading to their defeat.  A ceasefire was declared in 1949, with Egypt losing most of the Sinai Peninsula , humiliating the Egyptian population and the young officers who fought in the war.  These young men were angry and embarrassed at the poor showing of their country, and blamed Farouk for the humiliation.  The Egyptian loss increased negative feelings towards Israel , but more important, increased Egyptian resentment of the parliamentary system and the monarch almost to a breaking point.  Revolutionary talk became more prevalent, especially after the Wafd continued to weaken publicly and internally. [11]

       During the late 1940s, the Wafd had lost power, partially as a result of the 1948 defeat, but regained its place in the government in 1950.  They promised reforms and the removal of the British, but lost popularity with the people when they courted favor with the king and performed political purging to remove dangerous elements within the government.  The Wafd used Farouk as a scapegoat when things went bad, and he in turn blamed the Wafd for the country’s volatility.  Internal rivalries and disorganization led to the party’s failure.  When they attempted to remove the British from the Canal Zone by abrogating the 1936 treaty, the British refused, making them appear even weaker.  One of the main issues the Wafd faced was the generational gap within the party.  Many of the older members resented the opinions of the younger members, while many younger members believed the older members’ opinions were archaic.  Since the Wafd lacked the power necessary to enforce its will, it faced two choices in 1951: support the people in removing the British from the Canal Zone , which would anger the British, or side with the British and alienate the people. [12]   These conditions helped precipitate the Free Officers Movement in the 1940s.

       Farouk knew about the existence of the Free Officers for a few years, but was never able to unearth any names of those involved.  The central nucleus of the Free Officers developed in 1949.  Nasser is credited with the creation of this eight man executive committee, since he became its president.  The majority of the men in the committee were from the middle class.  The group laid out an extensive propaganda campaign and plans for an inevitable coup, set for 1954.  Two more men were added to the committee in 1951, with each of these executives responsible for an autonomous group within the Free Officer movement, making it appear dysfunctional, but very difficult to infiltrate.  The structure resembled a mafia organization, with the lower members unaware of the people who controlled things at the top. [13]

       The Free Officers wanted to end the corrupt political regime under Farouk, but they did not have a specific idea of what to put in its place.  They remained separate from other political groups because they wanted to maintain their close relationship with the Egyptian population. [14] By 1951, the Free Officers dominated the ranks of the Officers’ Corps, infuriating Farouk because many of his loyal men in the Corps were not reelected. [15]   As their plans continued, Nasser decided to use General Muhammad Naguib as the front man for the Free Officers.  In 1952, Naguib was elected to the board in the Officers’ Corps. [16]   That same year, the group openly challenged Farouk. [17]   They used the failings of the Wafd in the early 1950s to support their party, saying that they “are with the people now and forever, and will answer only to the call of the nation…take note of the conspiracies which surround it. Rally around the Free Officers!” [18]

       When the Wafd told the British to leave the Canal Zone , they refused, leading to the outbreak of guerilla warfare in the area and strengthening public resolve against the Wafd.  On 25 January 1952, British forces attacked the police in Ismailia when the police refused to surrender.  Riots and fires broke out in Cairo the following day.  Farouk ordered the Wafd to declare martial law in the country before he dismissed them from the government.  The British blamed socialists.  Most Egyptians blamed the Wafd because Farouk deflected the blame to them.  The riots left two dozen foreigners and 50 Egyptians dead, and earned the name Black Saturday.  Farouk attempted to salvage his government by installing a new Prime Minister, Ali Maher, whom he replaced with Ahmed Naguib El-Hilali in March.  Again, Farouk replaced the Prime Minister he appointed with Hussein Siri, and finally put El-Hilali back as Prime Minister for the day before the coup was planned. [19]

       In June 1952, Farouk disbanded the Officers’ Corps after elections placed several Free Officers on the executive board, booting out those loyal to the king.  The Free Officers decided by July that the time had come to overthrow Farouk in a successful coup.  Farouk was not initially aware of the threat he faced.  By July 23 though, the full extent of the threat was thoroughly understood.  He had thought the biggest threat was from the senior ranks of the military, not the junior officers, an opinion which proved fatal to Farouk. [20]   The coup was planned for August 1952, but was moved up to the night of July 22 after the Officers’ Corps was disbanded.  

The Free Officers had no political ideology, but they did set forth goals: end Egyptian colonialism, destroy feudalism, eliminate capital control of Egypt , establish social justice, build up the national army, and create a democratic life.  They readily admitted they were not qualified and lacked experience, but they had every intention of trying to run the country. [21]   Interestingly, the Free Officers were not elected or chosen to lead the people – they simply took power and solved Egypt ’s problems as they saw fit, and the people went along with it because they disliked Farouk. Because they acquired power at a low point in the country’s history, it was easy to wrestle power from the monarchy and build up from there. [22]

        Just as the July revolution did not appear from nothing, neither did the mastermind behind it.  Nasser’s origins were lower middle class in rural Egypt .  His father was intelligent, a trait which Nasser inherited.  Nasser enjoyed politics, even as a teenager, and often read the works of enlightened Europeans and authors.  He aspired to be part of the Wafd, but became disillusioned when he discovered their corruption.  After the 1936 decree, Nasser was able to attend the military academy in 1937.  He befriended many men who later became part of the Free Officers, including Abdul Hakim Amer, Anwar el-Sadat, and Zakariya Muhieddin.  He was stationed in the Sudan during World War II, but returned to his friends to begin discussing an uprising against the corrupted contemporary government. [23]

       During the planning stages, Nasser showed his knack for organization, which made him ideal for organizing the coup.  However, he strongly disliked bloodshed, and therefore did not consider assassination a revolutionary tool. [24]   He mapped out the details for the coup very precisely.  The Officers would seize general headquarters and seal off central Cairo , while keeping the British from interfering, forcing Farouk to capitulate.  They essentially secured all of Egypt by July 25, except for the Canal Zone which the British still occupied. [25]   Britain did not know anything about the coup, providing the reason for their lack of initial interference.  There was little they could do once they were aware though.  The British were very wary of this new regime, so to quell their fears, Ali Maher was made the civilian Prime Minister to show the Free Officers were merely removing the corruption of the previous regime. [26]  As a result, the British decided to wait for a bit, and see how things played out in Egypt . 

The US had very little knowledge of the coup, but they initially supported the Nasser regime because they received initial evidence that he was pro-West.  Historians generally agree that Farouk did plead for British interference, however, while some evidence supports that he went to America for help as well, it was mostly the British to whom he turned.  The US decided to see how things progressed in Egypt under the new Free Officer regime, with the British deciding to follow suit. [27]   The British however were surprised at the coup because they were left out of the loop, but did not contest Nasser at first since they lacked the ability to do so and did not want to be at odds with America .  As a result, the British refused to intervene on Farouk’s behalf [28]

Farouk was shocked that the British were not interfering on his behalf when he requested their aid, and he began to suspect they were aiding the coup. [29]   He was not immediately removed from power though.  In the mean time, the Free Officers requested that Naguib be designated head of the military.  Farouk yielded, and a few days later, he left for Naples after having abdicated the throne to his infant son, Fouad II, who was also exiled.  The revolution was practically bloodless, due in large part to Nasser .  This new regime did not have a favored ideology, thus making instant enemies from the Left and the Right. [30]   However, Nasser had the support of the military, including the Free Officers. [31]

The logistics and organization mapped out by Nasser would have amounted to nothing without both the mentality which triggered the coup and the reason that Egyptians so readily accepted them.  Egypt had been ruled by foreigners for over 2000 years, so it seems logical the people would view one of their own as a restorer of Egypt .  Some historians question why a successful coup did not occur earlier, but upon studying Egyptian history, the answer is evident: those occupying Egypt were too powerful, leaving Egypt dependent.  After World War II when Britain suffered severe financial setbacks at the same time Farouk’s power was diminishing at an alarming rate, the stage was set for Nasser and the Free Officers to overthrow Farouk’s regime. [32]

When the Free Officers initially took control of Egypt , many Egyptians viewed the coup as a force of stability finally coming to the country.  The Officers truly believed that “only the army could arrest the decay of the political order.” [33]   They were equally as enraged as any political rivals of the period, except those joining the ranks of the Free Officers did not latch on to any of the reigning political ideologies.  The closest term to describing them would be nationalists.  While some members of the Free Officers were from the ranks of the Socialist Party of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, religion and specific political ideologies had no place in the Free Officers movement. [34]

It is important to note that while Nasser and the Free Officers instituted a new political regime, they did not create a new political order.  During the first years of this new political regime, Nasser ’s focused on stabilizing the government under the power of the Free Officers, who officially became the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) after the revolution. Nasser did not openly appear as the leader of the Free Officers or of the Revolutionary Command Council until 1954, but he was actually the man behind the power, which is why the regime after the coup is referred as his regime.  Egypt was still run by force under Nasser’s regime as it always had been under foreign rulers, though Nasser was never elected by the people as a legitimate ruler. [35]  

The new regime addressed the removal of Farouk from the monarchy.  Nasser led a two-thirds majority in favor of exiling Farouk, while Farouk panicked for his life, especially since the West ignored his plea for help.  His attempts to seek aid from the West enraged the new regime, who wanted him out immediately. [36]   On 26 July 1952, Farouk officially abdicated his throne to his infant son Crown Prince Ahmed Fouad.  A regency council remained in Cairo as the representative for King Fouad, but this was really only to reassure the British and keep them for intervening.  Farouk fled to Italy that night.  Two days later, General Muhammad Naguib became president of Egypt , with Ali Maher, a civilian politician, as the Prime Minister, therefore balancing the military leadership with the civilian. [37]

Nasser began to institute a number of reforms, the most noteworthy being the land reform, which decreased the maximum amount of land held to 200 feddans (207.6 acres).  Signed into law on September 11, 1952, this legislation met much hostility from the Pasha class (the nobility).  Maher, a wealthy noble, fervently opposed this law, proposing a 500 feddan (519 acre) limit. [38]   The regime desired to eliminate the Pasha class and close the rich-poor gap. [39]   Land could be purchased by the government and sold to peasants, though they could purchase no more than five feddans (5.19 acres).  Those peasants owning less than five feddans were grouped into cooperatives which doled out farming supplies and equipment to the group.  Nasser ’s regime was able to closely control land distribution through this land reform which helped to establish their reputation. [40]

The idea of unity was particularly important as the regime began gathering strength towards the end of 1952.  Nasser and his executives did not want the regime to appear as a military dictatorship, which is the reason they appointed Ali Maher as Prime Minister.  The executive committee of the Free Officers became the executive committee of the RCC, and referred to themselves as the general command, while many British viewed them as a military junta.  Nasser was named president of the executives, but Naguib was made president of Egypt once the republic was declared in 1953, to give the revolution a more legitimate air, though he personally did not wield any power. [41]

The junta, or RCC, tended to work in the background – a force felt, but not seen.  For some of the working class, the junta was not doing enough in a timely manner.  Workers rioted in August 1952, which resulted in the execution of two workers, exhibiting the junta’s power and the measures to which they would go to ensure stability.  However, the RCC did worry that the sentences would cause a mob to rise, but they did not.  One problem which increased in magnitude involved Maher, who became a problem for the RCC. [42]

The political situation became more complicated when Maher resigned as Prime Minister in early September 1952 because of immutable differences between his and the RCC’s opinions, specifically on land reform.  Britain opposed Maher’s removal because it meant the junta would be running the Egyptian government, and the British were well aware they held no sway with the Egyptian military (most officers resented the British presence and believed that presence made Egypt weaker).  Nasser’s government appealed more to the fellaheen (the peasants), whereas the British tended to be entangled with the rich in Egypt , again leaving them in a quandary. [43]   With Maher removed, the 200 feddan law was set, and all those opposing the limit were arrested, while Naguib became the new Prime Minister. [44]

The junta informed all existing political parties to declare new platforms within six months of the coup, but after Maher’s resignation, Nasser again proposed a call for party reorganization; this time, the intended target was the Wafd party.  The Wafd felt the Free Officers Movement had prevented any real social change from coming to Egypt , and resented their newly acquired power, leading the RCC to feel threatened by the Wafd’s presence. [45]   The new law governing political parties required parties to purge themselves of all corrupt elements and threats to the government and to Egypt . [46]   The RCC brought younger officers in its ranks to give the effect that these men were untainted by the corruption of their predecessors.  Whether or not they were corrupt remains to be seen, but the implication is intriguing.  By bringing in these younger officers, the RCC moved closer towards maximum rule of Egypt , and began developing a loyalty ideology in favor of Nasser and the RCC which would play a large role in the politics of 1954. [47]

Other reforms included the abolishment of titles in the Pasha class, the elimination of the government recess to Alexandria , and the end to subsidies paid to ministers.  These elements which were part of Farouk’s regime were symbols of the corruption Nasser wanted to eliminate.  Purging the government therefore not only cleansed the system of what was deemed corrupted, but also showed the perseverance and tenacity of Nasser ’s regime.  Additionally, the government decreased rent payments, increased military wages, and reformed taxes. [48]

Once in power, and after instituting some reforms, the regime took steps to ensure no counterrevolution would occur among the lower classes.  Their primary fear though lay in the possibility of being overthrown by opponents to the regime, including, but not limited to, the Wafd (who were still attempting to regain their hold), the Communists in Egypt , and most importantly, the Muslim Brotherhood.  Before taking extreme steps against their opponents, the RCC abolished the Egyptian Constitution of 1923 in December 1952. [49]

On 16 January 1952, all political parties were banned, though some political organizations did not consider themselves parties, attempting to remain exempt from the purge.  By June that year, Egypt was declared a republic, naming Naguib as president and Nasser as Deputy and Interior Prime Minister, which propelled him into the public eye for the first time.  The Regency Council was disbanded, although it never really held more than a ceremonial purpose in the government.  After declaring Egypt a republic, the RCC was still faced with the British question, which was also linked to the Sudan issue.  Nasser supported the Sudan ’s vie for self-rule in 1953, which Britain granted begrudgingly, as their hold on their empire was becoming extremely tenuous.  British forces had remained behind in the country in the aftermath of World War II, hoping to regain their hold on the country, but their power base was weak.  They no longer held the ability to enforce their will.  Thus, the Sudan , which was a part of the British Empire, was released from British influence, and was allowed to choose whether or not they would accept a connection with Egypt . [50]

Once the Sudanese issue was at least partially resolved, Nasser shifted the focus toward eliminating the threats the new regime faced.  Communist groups such as the DMNL, the Workers’ Vanguard, and the Egyptian Communist Party were some of the larger threats to the government.  While these parties posed a significant threat to the new regime, a larger and more powerful threat loomed in the near future: the Muslim Brotherhood. [51]   The Muslim Brotherhood grew in number and in strength during the Palestine War in 1948, specifically because of the religious ideology involved. [52]   They wanted to participate in government even before the coup, which led the RCC to believe that the group was not to be trusted. [53]   The Brotherhood kept a low profile after the revolution, but they disagreed with several of the reforms imposed by Nasser ’s regime, ending any attempts at cooperation. [54]

Nasser set up the Liberation Rally in February 1953 to exert control over the political parties and win over any citizens still skeptical of the revolution and its intentions.  In one last attempt to create cooperation between the RCC and the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser invited the group to be a part of the Rally because he had alienated most other political parties, and could ill-afford to lose support when his government was still trying to legitimize its power.  The Brotherhood refused, and in doing so, brought about their demise. [55]

The intent of the political party purging was to instill fear in the regime’s adversaries and warn them from attempting any sort of counterrevolution.  Some parties acquiesced and purged their parties, hoping to gain favor with the government.  Other parties, such as the Wafd, refused to purge their party to the specifications laid out by the RCC.  The purging consisted of eliminating all extraneous people in the party and any threats to the new government.  The Wafd simply stopped trying to do so, angering some of the younger members of the group who would have preferred to remove the “corrupted elders” from their party.  The disunity and lack of supported leadership left the Wafd weak and open to verbal attacks from the RCC. [56]

The other political parties who capitulated and purged their parties were given an ultimatum: purge the party according to the junta’s guidelines by October 1953 to be considered for recognition or face annihilation.  By this deadline, 15 groups sought certification as political parties.  These groups were merely splinters of the old political parties, though only devoted to one issue (i.e. workers, nationalism, women, etc.).  The Wafd was not included among those seeking to be recognized though.  The party took their case to the State Council because they did not believe the junta had the authority to disband their party.  They failed in their case though, and were effectively eliminated as a threat to the government. [57]

After removing the Wafd threat, Nasser again turned to the Muslim Brotherhood.  After their refusal to be a part of the Liberation Rally, the Brotherhood went on the offensive, attacking the regime as “sellouts to the imperialists” as Nasser felt it necessary to earn the favor of more powerful Western countries, notably the United States. [58]   The Brotherhood was declared a political party, and therefore, subject to be purged. [59]   The internal divisions, which had existed in the Brotherhood since 1949, and were inevitably the downfall of any group opposing the RCC, finally took their toll.  After they attempted to wrestle power from Nasser ’s regime in 1954, their group was officially banned by the Egyptian government. [60]

To efficiently consolidate the power of the new regime and their hold on government, Nasser attempted to gain popular support by appealing to the people.  These appeals can best be seen in his book The Philosophy of the Revolution written in 1954, and in an article written in the Foreign Affairs journal that same year.  This article, “The Egyptian Revolution,” describes the process by which Nasser came to power and the reasons for doing so.  He states that Egypt had been ill used for centuries, even when Farouk was king due much in part to the British occupation.  He fervently attacked the British, accusing them of lying and manipulating Egypt .  He therefore defended the motivations behind the revolution, and also stated that force was necessary to achieve absolute independence.  [61]

By defending the party purge as a means to eliminate already existing corruption, Nasser appeared the hero and the abolisher of repression in Egypt .  He used these arguments to increase Egyptian support, but also attempted to sway foreign opinion as well.  He provoked the United States , saying that if they provided aid to Egypt and the Middle East as a whole, they would not have to fear possible Soviet infiltration in Egypt (since the USSR would be the only other viable source for arms next to the United States ). [62]   He also discussed the future of Pan-Arabism, something he more firmly supported in his later years, stating that the business of the Middle East should be dealt with by the Middle East .  Together, these ideas worked to strengthen the morale of the people and increased their loyalty to Nasser . [63]   Interestingly, some people even considered a period of military supervision a wise idea to strengthen Egypt , but most of the population simply wanted Farouk removed. [64]

To further solidify their claim to power, the regime set up the Revolutionary Tribunal to “demoralize the opposition,” lasting into 1953. [65]   It did crush most opposition once and for all (with the exception of the Brotherhood, who would remain in a precarious, yet existing, position until early 1954), making it effective in removing most opposition.  The demoralization may or may not have occurred depending on the perspective of the observer.  This tribunal is ultimately where the Wafd was finished off, as were other major political party threats. [66]

Once the constitution had been abolished in 1952, elections proved to be a difficult matter.  The RCC declared a three year transitional period, during which theywould hold all power and Naguib would remain president. [67]   In February 1953, the junta declared itself a sovereign authority, with a temporary constitution.  Members of the RCC took positions on the cabinet staff and acted as government officials.  They did fear the people would begin to view them as a dictatorship, so they took extreme measures to control public opinion of the RCC.  Media censorship also began during this year. [68]

Naguib had little to no say in how the government was run.  He was chosen because he was older and distinguished in appearance, an effect which the younger officers with actual power hoped would calm the people who “perceived [them] as hot-headed youngsters.” [69]   Naguib’s popularity with the Sudanese won increased favor for the regime because a good relationship with the Sudanese allowed Egypt to maintain their access to the Nile . [70]   With this illusion of power, Naguib’s desire for real power grew.  He resented having to consult younger, lower ranking officers on government decisions.  The RCC began to regret putting him in such a powerful position, but knew he was “no match for Colonel Nasser.” [71]   At a loss for his next move, Naguib consulted former government officials from the previous regime for advice.  When the RCC found out, they considered Naguib a traitor. [72]

The RCC wanted to remove Naguib, but he held most of the popular support in Egypt , and removing him from office could mean the loss of the Egyptian majority’s support.  In late 1953 and early 1954, Nasser began taking steps to defame Naguib. He accused Naguib of consorting with the Muslim Brotherhood, which made him an enemy of the state, since the Brotherhood was deemed illegal in January 1954.  However, both the Brotherhood and the Wafd attempted to use a connection with Naguib to gain governmental control, although these efforts went unfulfilled. [73]

 Although Naguib had popular support, Nasser held the support of the military and the RCC.  In February 1954, Naguib resigned as president when he had been denied an increase in power, angering much of the population.  To appease the people, the RCC reinstated Naguib as president by 27 February 1954.  Nasser also announced that the RCC would be dissolved that month and the country would return to parliamentary rule.  Former political parties cheered this decision.  The army however refused to let the RCC dissolve itself, and attacked any opposition who threatened them.  So, in the appearance of seeking to appease the military (who were effectively running much of the government), the RCC renounced their dissolution, and agreed to remain in power. [74]

Approved political parties were restored upon the reestablishment of the RCC.  Free elections were “indefinitely postponed” though.  Censorship was imposed again (it had been eliminated when Naguib stepped down and the RCC issued it resignation).  At this point, although Naguib regained his presidential position, it was merely a ceremonial title, and only lasted for another six months. [75]   The call to reinstate the RCC expresses the strong loyalty the military felt for Nasser through the use of effective propaganda. [76]

The revolution was officially declared over in July 1954.  Not every Egyptian was pleased with this outcome, especially Brotherhood members.  On 26 October 1954, a member of the Brotherhood, Abd al-Latif attempted to assassinate Nasser while he was speaking to a crowd.  While the origin of the decision to eliminate Nasser is unknown, this attempt at his life only further bolstered his reputation, as he famously spoke that if he died, “you shall all be Gamal Abdel Nasser.” [77]   The assassination attempt was so successful in improving Nasser ’s popularity that the RCC was able to completely severe ties with Naguib, as they had no further use for him.  He stepped down again for the last time on 14 November 1954.

Around this period, Nasser began to turn towards improving the foreign policy of Egypt .  By 1955, foreigners recognized that Nasser had emerged as the leader of his regime.  He became president after Naguib stepped down, and at the same time finished writing The Philosophy of the Revolution. [78]   A new constitution was implemented in January 1956. [79]   After dealing with internal threats, in 1954, the RCC attempted to address the British presence in the Canal Zone after governmental power became set in stone.  He had tried to deal with the issue soon after the coup, but the internal rivalries and threats needed the government’s undivided attention. [80]  

With the elimination of the majority of the threats against Nasser and his regime, the focus shifted to Britain .  Since the 1936 treaty was abrogated in 1951 under the Wafd government, Egypt refused to acknowledge that British troops could remain in the Canal Zone , which led to the crisis of Black Saturday as discussed earlier.  However, Nasser and Britain did not settle on a defense agreement until 1954, which gave the British 20 months to remove themselves from the Canal Zone .  However, under this agreement, should Turkey or another Arab country pose a threat to Egypt or the Suez Canal, the British maintained the right to reoccupy the Canal Zone . [81]

Britain did not simply seek to gain influence over Egypt ; they attempted to get involved with the rest of the Middle East as well, and created and led the Baghdad Pact in 1955 which included Iraq , Iran , Pakistan , and Turkey .  Nasser was outraged with this agreement, and became even more so when Britain began courting Jordan to join.  Iraq was made a leading member of the Baghdad Pact, which challenged Nasser’s leadership role and Egypt ’s high status within the Middle East . [82]   Nasser used radio addresses to speak out against the Pact and “Western imperialism.” [83]   He believed Britain was trying to isolate Egypt ; so to counter the Baghdad Pact, the Arab Collective Security Pact was initiated between Saudi Arabia and Egypt , which did not truly amount to much. [84]   At the same time, other outside threats posed dilemmas to the young republic.

Nasser always read foreign newspapers to keep abreast of events around the world, paying special attention to matters concerning the United States . [85]   Even during the coup, Nasser remained very cautious in his dealings with the US .  He wanted to acquire the support of the US because he needed the financial aid and the ability of the US to act as a mediator between Egypt and Britain . [86]   The US sought influence in the Middle East, and offering arms to Egypt presented their outlet (in addition to US support of Israel ). [87]   The US encouraged Egypt to join the Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO), a US-created entity to ensure the US maintained control in the Middle East .  Nasser viewed MEDO as a “perpetuation of occupation,” and refused to join.  However, military aid to Egypt was contingent upon three constituents: membership in MEDO, agreement to the Mutual Defense Assistance Program (MDAP), which would allow the US to monitor the military aid given to Egypt , and the promise that the weapons would not be used against Britain or Israel . [88]

Nasser became suspicious of US involvement in the Middle East, especially when the US was strongly pushing for MEDO.  He knew the US feared Soviet aid to Egypt , giving him some limited bargaining power.  The US made strong efforts to preempt Soviet involvement by hoping to help Nasser see the danger of the USSR .  Nasser replied to these US demands, saying, “How can I…disregard a killer with a pistol 60 miles away from me at the Canal to worry about somebody who is holding a knife 1000 miles away?” [89]   Basically, if he could not get the military aid from the US , he would turn to the Soviets because the Israeli threat was very real and very close, unlike the Communist threat. [90]   The US and Egypt were finally able to reach an agreement though, despite their misgivings towards one another. 

In 1955, the US provided a package of over $200 million to build the Aswan Dam because they wanted Egypt to be the leader in resolving the Arab-Israeli Conflict which they had little success in solving.  In the meantime, Israel began attacking the Gaza area, so Nasser subsequently wanted to modernize his military, creating a difficult situation with the US .  He refused to allow US supervision of the military aid, since they suspected it would be used against Israel .  As a result, Egypt set up the Czech arms deal with the Soviets.  The US believed Nasser was bluffing, but nonetheless, US Secretary of State John Dulles attempted to improve relations, and again made an offer (a smaller sized one) to fund the dam.  All US aid was rescinded though following Egypt ’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China . [91]

Nasser had no intention of supporting either side in the Cold War since doing so would make Egypt appear inferior and dependent.  However, the failure of the US to provide large amounts of military aid to Egypt had pushed Nasser to the USSR .   This combined with the recognition of Communist China and the belligerence towards Israel prevented the US from offering any further aid to Egypt .  With the loss of US financial aid, Nasser had no funding to continue work on the Aswan Dam.  The Dam project had to wait until another source of funding appeared the following year.  Egypt did receive the aid needed to strengthen the country from the Soviets though, providing the USSR with a foothold in the Middle East .  However, neither country sought any political alliance.  The ideologies of each did not mesh, nor did they attempt to make them. [92]   With the Soviet aid, Nasser had the ability to attack the country which humiliated Egypt in 1948 and, in his opinion, invaded his borders in 1955: Israel .

Since US negotiations fell through, Nasser was under no obligation to honor the dictates preventing him from war with Israel .  With the British troops removed from the Sinai by 1956, the buffer between Egypt and Israel no longer existed. [93]   Tensions had been boiling in Egypt since the 1920s, even before the state of Israel officially existed.  Many Egyptians resented the Jewish presence in the predominantly Muslim area. [94]   Interestingly, when Nasser first rose to power, he did not seek a war against Israel , but perceived the need to defend Egypt .  Out of a desire to remain passive to the West, Nasser wanted to keep a quiet border with Israel , but that wish fell from favor when rumor suggested the institution of a new Israeli “activist policy,” which in turn increased Egyptian militancy. [95]

David Ben-Gurion, Israel ’s first Prime Minister, believed that if the Arab world united and became socially and economically in sync, Israel would face trouble.  He also knew only a charismatic leader could achieve this, and he saw that leader in Nasser .  When the coup in Egypt occurred, Israel was pleased Farouk was removed from power because they believed these middle class officers could better run the government.  Ben-Gurion and the people of Israel also believed Naguib was the leader of the movement.  After reading Nasser’s book, Ben-Gurion determined that Egypt viewed Israel as an obstacle to be overcome, especially because of Israel ’s connections to the West, enhancing Israeli hostility toward Egypt . [96]

Nonetheless, Israel and Egypt began secret negotiations in 1954 concerning the detaining of an Israeli ship in the Canal and the sentencing of Egyptian Jews spying for Israel .  These Israelis were sent into Egypt to act as agent provocateurs, attacking the Americans and the British in Egypt , while placing the blame on Nasser ’s regime.  However, this spy ring was compromised due to lax security.  Israel had hoped to injure the American and British opinion of Nasser through the planned terrorist attacks, later termed the Lavon Affair.  The men were arrested in Egypt before significant damage was done, but the Egyptian population was enraged. [97]   Nasser had promised a fair trial for these men, but in January 1955, Israel received word that some of the Jews were hanged, turning Israel against Egypt because they did not believe the men were given a fair trial. [98]   Egypt also became aggravated with Israel , viewing them as too “aggressive and expansionist,” therefore giving up attempts at mediation. [99]

Increasing the mounting tensions, Israelis raided an Egyptian military camp on 28 February 1955, forcing Nasser to respond because not doing so would be a blow to his reputation.  The Egyptian army was especially angry because of the victimized camp’s lack of defense, allowing it to be raided.  Nasser ’s desperation to save his reputation is another contributing factor in the acceptance of Soviet aid.  Funding was needed quickly, and the US had far too many contingents and also would not help because the US supported Israel . [100]   Egypt in turn infiltrated the Israeli border in the Gaza area, creating a vicious cycle of attacks, with each side claiming the other caused the first attack. [101]

Many Israelis viewed Nasser as an authoritarian-type leader, particularly after the Czech arms deal in 1955, disrupting the balance of power in the Middle East and threatening the status of Israel . [102]   The US again attempted to mediate between Israel and Egypt , but this time, interfering on Israel ’s behalf.  The US proposed a plan where both countries would yield some land along their border to act as a “No Man’s Land” area, but neither nation agreed to cede any land. [103]   The continued raids in the Gaza strip hurt Nasser ’s foreign diplomatic stance, since it appeared he could not defend his own nation, leading to an increase in violence along the Israeli-Egyptian border, damaging his image. [104]

To fix his reputation, and truly assert power in Egypt , Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company in 1956.  By doing so, he would complete the funding necessary to building the Aswan Dam for its third time, and create Lake Nasser in the process.  The British tried to bribe Nasser to remove him from power, but he refused.  Britain felt their only option was to overthrow Nasser .  Attempted British interference, tensions with Israel , and the loss of funding from the US all played a role in the move to nationalize the Canal.  By portraying the US and Britain as monsters, “sucking the blood of peoples,” Nasser was able to defend the nationalization.  He knew the West did not have the time to mount a successful attack, and by the time they were able to do so, Egypt would have the military funding from the USSR and the support of several Third World countries (acquired at the Bandung conference), who considered Nasser’s regime an admirable success.  With this support, the West would not risk an attack. [105]

Nasser did promise full compensation to the shareholders in the Canal, so no one could fault him for failing to reimburse those who invested in the company. [106]   By nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, Nasser had all but consolidated his power in Egypt , effectively creating what some historians term an “authoritarian” state, although Egypt officially remained a republic. [107]   By stabilizing his regime, Nasser was able to pursue other interests and focus on Pan Arabism, especially after the Suez Crisis in 1956.  Egypt shared a common language and religion with the rest of the Arab world, providing a common bond, according to Nasser, and this bond would unify the Middle East against the West. [108]

Nasser’s attempt at a larger role in the Arab world first becomes visible after the institution of the Baghdad Pact, which threatened Egypt ’s superiority in the Middle East . [109]   These views also came at a time when Egyptian nationalism was on the rise, creating somewhat of an identity crisis for many Egyptians.  Much of the population held themselves to an Egyptian identity, whereas Nasser strived for an Arab identity. [110]   As a result, he tried to mesh the two identities, believing that Egypt ’s spirit, while nationalist, was more Arabic. [111]  

After the Suez Crisis, he believed the “problems of the Arabs are the problems of the Egyptians,” linking the fates of both.  Nasser also recognized that Arab unity would strengthen the Middle East, while Arab “disunity guaranteed defeat,” especially in the face of their common enemy, Israel . [112]   The disillusionment with the West pushed Arab nations against the West, and increased the number of Arab alliances, and helped cause the Egyptian revolution.  By giving Egypt an Arab identity to go along with the Egyptian identity, the motivations behind the revolution remained supported because of Western corruption and their imperialistic tendencies in the Middle East which led inevitably to the revolution and the rise of Nasser ’s regime. [113]

The environment created under Farouk’s regime was the reason for the rise of the Free Officers’ Movement, and ultimately Nasser ’s regime.  While Nasser’s entire regime is not covered in this paper, it is important to understand the complexity of the issues which culminated in the Egyptian Revolution, and the very coup itself, before the entire Nasser period can be understood.  The British role in Egypt particularly caused much of the tension which arose before, during, and after the coup.  Egypt ’s geographic location made it a treasure for the West and a possible leader for the Middle East .  The clash of these two vastly different worlds resulted in Egypt ’s acquisition of a new identity under the guidance of Nasser . 

The man behind the coup, Nasser initially was viewed by Egyptians between 1952 and 1954 as a means of removing the corruption present under Farouk.  He owes his education and military experience to the very man he overthrew in 1952, the monarch who allowed him to gain the skills used in the coup.  Therefore, this does not mean Nasser resented Farouk for opening up the Officers’ Corps.  It suggests Nasser was a product of his time—he was influenced by the radical nationalist notions which already existed when he entered the military academy.  He saw his country corrupted, and resented the rulers who had allowed foreign intervention and domestic corruption to last for so long.  He and the Free Officers had no political ideology and no real plan, suggesting a certain impulsiveness, possibly resulting from a combination of their military experience and their youth.  Regardless, these men, with Nasser leading them, led one of the few (if any) bloodless revolutions in history.  His path to consolidating power proved rocky, but within four years, he had instituted land reforms, changed the constitution, revamped the government, and moved all the power from a few men to one.

Historians may not agree on the ethics of Nasser and his regime, but they cannot deny the skillful ability which propelled a middle class colonel into the seat of complete and unquestionable power.  The quick yet powerful ease through which Nasser acquired his position exhibits an organized intelligence which can only be attributed to Nasser ’s intelligence.  It was only after the assassination attempt in the latter half of 1954 however, when he tells the crowd that his movement will live on threw the people even if he dies, that public opinion shifts significantly in his favor to the point of negating the need for Naguib’s presence.  By the end of 1954, the people supported Nasser , rather than simply the idea which he embodied in 1952.  With this surge of popularity, Nasser received a high regard among Egyptians, after which he turned to foreign policy.  While he acquired status and recognition for Egypt during the 1950s, ultimately he outlasted the demise of his glory by the mid 1960s, and suffered a blow to his reputation from which he did not recover.


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[1] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement: Egypt’s Free Officers and the July Revolution, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1992, 16-17.

[2] Peter Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965, 1-20.

[3] James Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt , Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2002, 11-13.

[4] P.J. Vatikiotis, Nasser and his Generation, New York : St. Martin ’s Press, 1978, 47-48, 50; Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 14.

[5] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 30-31.

[6] Ibid., 30.

[7] Shimon Shamir, ed., Egypt from Monarchy to Republic: A Reassessment of Revolution and Change, Boulder , San Francisco , Oxford : Westview Press, 1995, 15-17.

[8] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 14.

[9] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 19-20.

[10] Vatikiotis, Nasser, 68-69, 74-77.

[11] Robert Henry Stephens, Nasser: a political biography, New York , NY : Simon and Schuster, 1971, 83-86.

[12] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 20-26.

[13] Ibid., 47-48.

[14] Ibid., 42, 49.

[15] Stephens, Nasser, 98.

[16] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 40.

[17] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 16.

[18] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 50-51.

[19] Ibid., 26-27, 33.

[20] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 56.

[21] Vatikiotis, Nasser, 107, 127.

[22] Shamir , Egypt , 18.

[23] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 33-37.

[24] Ibid., 38.

[25] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 53.

[26] Thornhill, Michael T. “ Britain , the United States , and the Rise of an Egyptian Leader: The Politics and Diplomacy of Nasser’s Consolidation of Power, 1952-1954,” The English Historical Review Vol. 119 No. 483 (September 2004), 895.

[27] Rubin, Barry. “ America and the Egyptian Revolution,” Political Science Quarterly Vol. 97 No. 1 (Spring 1982), 76.

[28] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 17.

[29] Thornhill “ Britain ,” 896-897.

[30] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 42-45.

[31] Shamir , Egypt , 20-21.

[32] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 13.

[33] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 37-40.

[34] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 44.

[35] Shamir , Egypt , 22-23.

[36] Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 897-898.

[37] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 60.

[38] Shamir , Egypt , 24-25.

[39] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 59.

[40] Ibid.,, 58.

[41] Ibid., 59.

[42] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 63, 65.

[43] Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 900-901.

[44] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 67.

[45] Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 898-903.

[46] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 47.

[47] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 68.

[48] Ibid., 62.

[49] Ibid., 68-69.

[50] Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 904, 906, 909-910.

[51] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 30-31.

[52] Vatikiotis, Nasser, 87.

[53] Gordon, Nasser ’s Blessed Movement, 30, 45-46.

[54] Gordon, Nasser ’s Blessed Movement, 55, 98-100.

[55] Ibid., 55.

[56] Ibid., 70.

[57] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 73-74.

[58] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 51-52.

[59] Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 912.

[60] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 21.

[61] Gamal Abdel Nasser, “The Egyptian Revolution,” Reprint of Foreign Affairs: An American Quarterly Review (1954): 199-203.

[62] Ibid., 203-204, 211.

[63] Nasser , “The Egyptian Revolution,” 208, 210.

[64] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 63-64.

[65] Ibid., 90.

[66] Ibid., 87-88.

[67] Vatikiotis, Nasser, 133.

[68] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 75-78, 82, 84-85.

[69] Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 894.

[70] Ray Takeyh, The Origins of the Eisenhower Doctrine: The US , Britain , and Nasser’s Egypt , 1953-1957, London : MacMillan Press LTD, 2000, 53.

[71] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 44-45, 48.

[72] Ibid., 48.

[73] Ibid., 50; Vatikiotis, Nasser, 148-149.

[74] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 22-23; Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 913-914.

[75] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 51.

[76] Vatikiotis, Nasser, 146.

[77] Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement, 182-184; Stephens, Nasser , 128-140.

[78] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 67.

[79] Ibid., 66.

[80] Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 911-912.

[81] Ibid., 917.

[82] Laura M. James, Nasser at War: Arab images of the enemy, New York , NY : Palgrave MacMillan, 2006, .

[83] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 57.

[84] Ibid., 59-60.

[85] James, Nasser, 18.

[86] Thornhill, “ Britain ,” 892-894.

[87] James, Nasser, 81.

[88] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 49-50, 53-54.

[89] James, Nasser, 45.

[90] Rubin, “ America ,” 74, 85.

[91] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 51-53.

[92] Rubin, “ America ,” 85, 87-88; Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 50.

[93] Rubin, “ America ,” 82.

[94] Israel Gershoni and James P. Jankowski, Egypt , Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1986, 254.

[95] Stephens, Nasser, 142.

[96] Elie Podeh and Onn Winckler, ed. Rethinking Nasserism: Revolution and Historical Memory in Modern Egypt , Gainesville , FL : University Press of Florida , 2004, 75-76.

[97] “The Lavon Affair: Israel and Terror in Egypt ,” MidEastWeb, MidEastWeb for Coexistence R.A. – Middle East Resources,

[98] Podeh, Rethinking, 76-77.

[99] James, Nasser, 8-9.

[100] Ibid., 13.

[101] Podeh, Rethinking, 77.

[102] Ibid., 78.

[103] Takeyh, The Origins, 68-69.

[104] Takeyh, The Origins, 74.

[105] James, Nasser, 24-28, 33-34.

[106] Ibid., 30-31.

[107] Podeh, Rethinking, 50.

[108] Gershoni , Egypt , 258.

[109] Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, 54-55.

[110] Shamir , Egypt , 26.

[111] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 27-28.

[112] Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, 31-33.

[113] Takeyh, The Origins, 51.