During September 1966, there was a significant governmental shift in Egypt. Zakariyya Mohieddin, for long the régime’s strong man, was replaced by a Colonel of Engineers, Sidky Soliman, who had for several years been Minister responsible for the Aswan High Dam. Interpretations of this shift differed; but in any case the transition was cut short. After a period of mounting tension on the Arab frontiers in the spring of 1967, Israel launched an all-out war, bombing airfields in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, and capturing within a week the west bank of Jordan, Sinai, Jerusalem and the Golan heights. The overall consequences of this crushing military defeat are not yet fully manifest. But, as far as Egypt is concerned, it constitutes a major crisis in the development of the nation.

To situate these events and determine their exact nature, some accurate study has to be made of the role of the army in Egyptian political life since the ‘Free Officers’ organization seized power in the early hours of July 23rd, 1952. The word political is to be understood literally: involving every aspect of policy throughout the entire country, and not merely in the limited sense of the struggle for power, and the various vicissitudes which inevitably accompany this in every country at any epoch.

First we must be clear about what the Egyptian army was in 1952. Unlike almost all the other armies in the so-called ‘Third’ world, it was a national army, historically allied to the national movement—in the revolution of 1881–82, which broke out with a military insurrection by the entire army led by Colonel Ahmed Arabi and his comrades; in the ‘Secret Organization’ of the Wafd which was the work of radical patriotic officers led by Colonel Abdel Rahman Fahmi (1919–23); in the passive resistance on the part of the army against British pressures during the Second World War; in the participation by the military in the guerrilla committees (fidaiyyin) against the British base in the Suez Canal Zone (1950–51); in the Palestine war (1948–49); and finally, from 1948 onwards, in the setting up of the clandestine ‘Free Officers’ organization which took power on July 23rd, 1952.footnote1

Right from the start of the British occupation in 1882, the Sepoy forces repressing the national movement were concentrated in the police, and particularly in its two active branches, the political and the criminal police. The army was held in reserve, neutralized because practically unarmed, though a support for the régime. It was linked to the Occupation-Palace coalition by the privileges granted the officer corps, entry to which was confined to the sons of the elite until 1936 when the Wafd widened entry to include the sons of the middle classes and the petit bourgeoisie. The army was ineffective—indeed it was deliberately made ineffective by the coalition in power. Yet it was attuned to the ‘national elite’ and from 1936 onwards very close to the populist and radical trends which sprang up at almost every point in the spectrum of the Egyptian national movement.

The army was in the first place an officer corps, where the ‘Free Officers’ were recruited. The officer corps was at the time composed of two groups: the sons of the propertied classes (in particular the landowning aristocracy) on the one hand, and members of the middle classes and the petit bourgeoisie on the other. The first group made up the whole of the General Staff and the great majority of the higher officers; the second group, naturally, made up the mass of the officers on active service, as well as the elite of the young officers at General Staff H.Q. who by 1952 had reached the rank of major, lieutenant colonel or in very rare cases even colonel. But there was also the British influence, manifested in the extraordinary importance given to N.C.O.s. Their specific weight was enormous in the years preceding the 1952 coup, and many of them later joined Communist organizations or the Muslim Brothers. After the coup they were relegated to the role of mere agents; they were not institutionally part of the ‘Free Officers’ organization, which was confined exclusively to officers. As for the troops, until 1952 they were mainly fellahin and poor townsfolk who could not afford the money to buy themselves off military service; to a certain extent they were an army of the poor, a mass which was bound to respond en bloc, as in 1881–82, to the call of their leaders.