Free Officers, Bound Men

Much is made of the “cult of Sisi”, or the excessive adulation given to the General who was behind the ejection of President Morsi from his elected post. Comparisons are invariably drawn to President Nasser, the last man to receive the booby-trapped gift of his countrymen’s affection. But the comparison is at best forced. Nasser was half a dozen years younger than Sisi when he passed away in 1970 after nearly two decades as Egypt’s helmsman. The country he left behind was stricken with grief over his passing, even if his navigational skills left it retching from the turbulent journey he led. What is often ignored in this comparison is just how young Nasser was at the time he assumed the leadership and how utterly dedicated he was to the task of charming every single Egyptian. Nasser became President at an age (36) comparable to the “kids” at Tahrir that President Obama spoke fondly of. He had already been a convert to many of the doleful movements that dotted Egypt’s intra-war history. It was not only his youth and energy that shaped Egypt but also these of his cohorts, the Free Officers. Many were exceptional men in their own right, but they were always eclipsed by Nasser. Years after Nasser passed away, Khaled Mohieddin would remark that it was impossible to leave a room still disagreeing with Nasser. It was not so much coercion, although there was always some of that, but something akin to voluntary bondage. Nasser extracted much from his fellow officers, often willingly, but always to the cause of enhancing his standing. This was not a trivial point, and it has had a major impact on the course of Egypt’s history for over 60 years. With the exception of the Mohieddin cousins, and the posh Ali Sabry, most were of modest means. In them Nasser found men willing to go up against the aristocratic ruling class, and when necessary humiliate it.  More importantly, he set them up to mold the Egyptian bureaucracy to suit his project, leaving a long historical legacy of a military tinge to most important positions in Egypt.  Egypt’s erotic fascination with its army began with a love of the young men who swept away the monarchy without having a full plan of what to do next. The list of officers used by Nasser to charm. and occasionally coerce, the nation is long.

The energetic and capable Abdel Latif Boghdadi led the “revolutionary court” that tried the powerful Wafd chieftain Fouad Serageddin and other pre-1952 politicians. Nasser rewarded him by a long series of semi-humiliations. He was put in charge of paving the Nile Corniche, only to be known as “Abdel Rassif Boghdadi” (Rassif is Arabic for sidewalk), a cruel joke that allegedly left Nasser amused, while constantly denying the Vice-Presidential position to Boghdadi who felt it was owed to him.   Abdel Hakim Amer kept the army loyal for more than a dozen years, only to be made the scapegoat of the 1967 defeat, when in reality he was a junior partner in Nasser’s failure of leadership. Zakaria Mohieddin built the paranoid national security state, remained loyal beyond reproach to Nasser, and yet found himself eventually on the outs with him. He died a year after the 2011 revolution, his lips sealed forever to history. Kamal Eldin Hussein oversaw the re-writing of Egyptian school curricula, creating myths that echo to this very same day. Yet, when he pointed out the obvious, that the Yemen conflict is a disaster, he was quickly sidelined.  And there is of course Anwar El Sadat, whose complicated relationship with Nasser would largely color the remainder of his life, living under his considerable shadow, in both life and death.

Six decades after the 1952 coup there is still no comprehensive history of the men who laid the foundation for much of what ails Egypt today. Their record is not of cruelty or evil deeds. Most were patriots and broadly dedicated to Egypt. It is just that they never evolved beyond young men in thrall to their troop leader. They burst on the stage as Free Officers and remained there bound to Nasser, forever their El Rais.

— Maged Atiya


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