In 1952 a group of Free Officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the corrupt monarchy of King Farouk in a bloodless coup. After World War II and the loss to Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Egypt gradually slid into political chaos. The king was known internationally for his profligacy, and the Wafd Party—the largest Egyptian party, led by Mustafa Nahhas—had been discredited by charges of corruption and cooperation with the British during the war. Other political parties, some supporting the monarchy; the small Egyptian Communist Party on the left; and the far larger
Muslim Brotherhood on the right vied for power and sometimes engaged in terrorism and assassinations of rivals to gain power. Attacks against the British forces still stationed along the Suez Canal also escalated. The British reinforced their troops, and after fighting broke out between British soldiers and Egyptian police forces, a massive riot erupted in Cairo in January 1952. During “Black Saturday,” angry Egyptian mobs stormed European sectors, burning European-owned buildings and businesses in a demonstration of nationalist discontent and opposition to imperial control and the British refusal to leave Egypt.
On July 22, 1952, the Free Officers, who had secretly been plotting to overthrow the government for some time, took key government buildings, and on July 26 they deposed King Farouk. Farouk was permitted to go into exile, and his young son Ahmad Fu’ad II was made the new king. The young officers, most of whom were in their 30s, chose the elder and more well-known Brigadier General Muhammad Naguib as their figurehead leader, although it was known within the group that Nasser was the real political force. They formed an executive branch, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), including Anwar el-Sadat, Abd al-Hakim Amr, and Zakariyya Muhi al-Din. In January 1953 political parties were abolished in favor of one party, the Liberation Rally, and in June the monarchy was abolished in favor of a republic with Naguib as president.
The new government was anti-imperialist, anticorruption, and eager to develop the Egyptian economy and to secure full and complete Egyptian independence. Naguib and Nasser soon argued over the course Egyptian politics was to take, and, after an assassination attempt against Nasser failed, allegedly by the Muslim Brotherhood, Naguib was forced to resign. Under a new constitution, Nasser was elected president in 1956, a post he would hold until his death in 1970.
In 1954 the new regime negotiated an agreement with the British for the full withdrawal of British troops and an end to the 1936 treaty between the two nations. Under the agreement the old conventions regarding control of the Suez Canal by private shareholders were maintained; this issue led to a major war in 1956 after Nasser nationalized the canal.
Economic development was the cornerstone of the new regime’s program. Under a sweeping land reform program, land ownership was limited to 200 feddans, and major estates, many formerly owned by the royal family, were redistributed to the peasants. Plans for the construction of one of the largest development projects of its type at the time, the Aswa¯n Dam, were announced. Although the financing and construction of the dam became a major point of conflict between Egypt and the United States, it was duly built with Soviet assistance.
With the formation of the United Arab Republic with Syria in 1958, the pan-Arab policies of Nasser seemed ascendant in the Arab world; however, the union collapsed in 1961. Egypt also became bogged down in the Yemeni civil war. In 1962 pro-Nasser forces in Yemen overthrew the weak Imam Muhammad al-Badr and established a republic. Pro-monarchy forces assisted by arms and money from Saudi Arabia supported the monarchy while Egypt assisted the republican forces with arms, money, and troops. The war dragged on, draining Egyptian resources, and Nasser referred to the conflict as his “Vietnam.” Following the disastrous Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Saudi Arabia and Egypt agreed to withdraw their support from both sides and, although it adopted a far more moderate and pro-Saudi stance, the Yemeni republic survived.
In the 1960s Egypt turned increasingly toward the Soviet Union and state-directed socialism. In 1961 large businesses, industry, and banks were nationalized. Cooperatives for the peasants were established. With the creation of a new class of technocrats and officers, the power of the old feudal and bourgeoisie elites was gradually eliminated.
In 1962 a new political party, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), with a worker-peasant membership, was created. Under the 1962 National Charter the authoritarian state held political power exercising control from the top. The charter outlined an ambitious program of education, health care, and other social services; it also addressed the issue of birth control and family planning, as well as mandated equality of rights for women in the workplace. Many conservative forces in Egypt opposed the social changes, especially as they pertained to the family and the status of women, and consequently the social programs fell far short of their original intentions.
Under Nasser, Egypt became the dominant force in the Arab world and attempted to steer a neutral course in the cold war. The Egyptian revolution failed to meet many of its domestic goals, and the state-run economy was often inefficient. Egypt’s neutrality in the 1950s alienated many Western powers and conservative Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia. Following Nasser’s sudden death in 1970, Anwar el-Sadat became the Egyptian president. Sadat, who showed far more political acumen than he had previously been credited with, gradually turned away from the Soviet bloc.
Sadat forged alliances with the United States and gradually dismantled most of the revolution’s economic and social programs.
See also Arab-Israeli War (1956).