A familiar face in history, but one often overlooked in the books: Mohamed Naguib. One of the fathers of the 1952 revolution — referred to as a coup d’etat in more political cloisters — and Egypt’s first president is an enigmatic figure, overshadowed intentionally by his successor and fellow Free Officer Gamal Abd el-Nasser. Although both are considered the first Egyptian rulers since antiquity to seize sovereignty of the state, the reality is that Naguib’s legacy is a largely forgotten one.
Be it an intentional disregard or an unfortunate consequence of Abd el-Nasser’s charismatic, seductive pan-Arab ideology, Naguib has faded into obscurity for the most part.
An obscurity that does not suit one of Egypt’s central military powerhouses. Here is the story of an unsung, decorated president; here is the story of Mohamed Naguib.
From Childhood to Major General
Born 19 February 1901 in Khartoum, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Naguib’s household enjoyed military potential early on. His father, Youssef Naguib, was a ranking officer of the Egyptian Armed Forces; their lineage was a rich one, famed for its military contributions spanning generations.
Mohamed Naguib was the eldest of nine, and attended military college at the Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum, graduating in the brisk spring of 1918. He later joined the Egyptian Royal Guard in 1923 and became the first Egyptian military officer to obtain a law license, followed by a postgraduate degree in Politics and Economy.
After his promotion to captain in the early 1930s, Naguib was stationed in Khartoum where he founded a newspaper for the Armed Forces, which saw him rise up the echelon to major soon after. This was, however, a microcosmic prediction of his later trajectories, which saw Naguib as lieutenant colonel and brigadier general.
It was during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that he was set apart with great distinction; he was awarded the first military star of King Fouad I as well as the title of Mohamed Naguib Bey. This served as a turning point for Naguib, and the catalyst for one of Egypt’s most infamous political upheavals; the Free Officers Movement.
Revolution’s In The Air
Honored with the title of bey, Naguib was also established as director of the Egyptian Military Academy where he would come face-to-face with the founders of the Free Officers Movement. The Free Officers were a nationalist party dedicated to the vehement opposition of the monarchy and British presence in Egyptian affairs. Their reach widened across Egypt and Sudan, and soon the belief that the Egyptian-Sudanese monarchy was weak and ill-fitted to ruling became common rhetoric among them.
Originally headed by Gamal Abd el-Nasser, the group was composed of young officers who saw injustice and chose to act. Though their youth did not give them the credibility of action they so sought, and after being introduced to the ever-embellished Naguib, Abd el-Nasser saw an opportunity; he saw a figurehead.
He was invited to take over the Free Officers Movement, and he gladly accepted the mantle. While this strengthened the group for some time, it led to eventual bad blood between youthful, hungry Nasser and established Naguib; this resulted in delegating Naguib to the margins of symbolic leadership.
This was, of course, until the ungraceful deposition of King Farouk I in 1952–also known as Egypt’s first modern revolution. Naguib’s sunny disposition and his decorated past made him an ideal leader, made those yet unexposed to Nasser and his movement vie to support it.
And the revolution commenced, succeeded, and soon the Free Officers were credited with vanquishing British colonialism in Egypt.
Naguib was sworn in as the republic’s first ever president, the first native Egyptian to assume control over Egypt after a history fraught with war and imperialism. From the Romans to the Persians, to the Turks and Brits: Egypt had been lonely in its own internal separation.
The rose-tinted Egyptianism took a harsh turn only a year after the monarchy’s dismissal. In 1953, Naguib was accused by fellow Free Officer and once protege Nasser of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The struggle for power was fierce, short-lived. Nasser ultimately forced Naguib into presidential resignation in 1954.
For decades after, history books printed a boldfaced, tragic falsity under order of the military: that Gamal Abd el-Nasser was Egypt’s first formal president. Slowly, Naguib’s name was washed from honorifics and recognition, footnoted and forgotten as yet another common man in the struggle for freedom.
Scholarship suggests, and perhaps so does common belief, that Nasser was intentional in his erasure of Naguib’s legacy. In a day and age where transparency is a language in and of itself, though, seldom do such things stay hidden.
Even three revolutions on.