Free Officers, Egypt
FREE OFFICERS, EGYPT
Clandestine military organization that engineered and executed the coup of 23 July 1952, which began a new chapter in the history of modern Egypt.
The genesis of the Free Officers is much disputed among historians and specialists. Some argue that the group was formed in 1942 after the British ultimatum to King Farouk. Others take the Arab–Israel War (1948) as the starting point. Notwithstanding these differences, general agreement exists on four major points. First, Gamal Abdel Nasser was the undisputed leader of the group from its inception, and his position was never challenged. This fact laid down the foundation of his prominence as the strongman and president of Egypt until his death in 1970. Second, the group did not have an organized file or registry of its membership. It was organized into cells and sections, each with a specific function. The overall command and supervision was provided by a revolutionary committee headed by Nasser.
The organization of the Free Officers reflected a high degree of flexibility that was demonstrated in the frequent movements of individuals into and outside the group. Actually, the first attempt to develop a form of registry was under President Anwar al-Sadat (1970–1981) when he decided to provide a special pension for the Free Officers. Third, the group did not represent an ideologically homogeneous group. Among its members were officers with Islamist inclinations, such as Kamal al-Din Husayn and Abd al-Munʿim Amin; others were more or less leftists, such as Khalid Muhyi al-Din and Yusuf Sadiq. Lacking a clear ideology, all that the group had was the "six principles," which were their guiding directives after assuming power. The existence of ideological differences within the group was one of the factors that explains the power struggle among the Free Officers after 1952. Fourth, the group, under Nasser, was conscious of retaining its organizational autonomy, resolving not to be absorbed in any other political movement.
As individuals, the Free Officers had contacts with the Young Egypt party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, and other communist groups; while, as a group, they maintained a high degree of independence. Nasser believed that they could succeed only if they established a firm independent base within the army. One of the distinct features of the Free Officers is that they were purely military; the group had no civilian members and this has come to affect the nature of the post-1952 political ruling elite.
In the mid-1940s, the voice of the Free Officers was heard for the first time. They began to distribute leaflets, the first of them in 1945 was titled "The Army Gives Warning." The first open clash with the king took place in the early summer of 1952, when the officers' club in Cairo elected as president General Muhammad Naguib, who was the Free Officers' nominee, turning down the king's own candidate.
Between 1949 and July 1952, the Free Officers worked to recruit other sympathetic officers and strengthened their ties with civilians and politicians opposed to the monarchy. During this period too, because most of them were in their early thirties, they looked for a senior officer who could be presented to the public as their leading figure. Finally, they chose Naguib, who was a well-known infantry division commander and had been popular, especially since the Arab–Israel War, among the troops and young officers.
The actual seizure of power took place in the early hours of 23 July 1952, when troops commanded by Free Officers and their supporters occupied and controlled army headquarters, airports, the broadcasting station, telecommunication center, and major roads and bridges in Cairo. The details of what happened on that day show that the plan for seizing power was neither well thought out nor were its parts tightly integrated. Indeed, a combination of coincidence and luck made the operation successful. Within three days, the king abdicated the throne to his infant son and left the country. From then on, the Free Officers became the new rulers of Egypt.
See also Arab–Israel War (1948); Farouk; Muhyi al-Din, Khalid; Muslim Brotherhood; Naguib, Muhammad; Nasser, Gamal Abdel; Sadat, Anwar al-; Young Egypt.
Vatikiotis, P. J. The Egyptian Army in Politics: Pattern for New Nations? Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.
Ali E. Hillal Dessouki